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On October 1, 2002, years of discussions, hundreds of hours in meetings and public hearings, and thousands of comments from throughout Wisconsin were transformed into a package of rules to stem the No. 1 water pollution problem in the state and the nation – polluted runoff.
Wisconsin's runoff statistics are well known. Polluted runoff, also known as nonpoint source pollution, continues to degrade or threaten about 40 percent of the state's 44,000 miles of streams and rivers, and about 90 percent of the state's 15,037 inland lakes. It's the rare Great Lakes harbor that does not show some effects from runoff. Even wetland areas and groundwater resources in Wisconsin are adversely affected. Where there's water, it's likely there will be some degree of runoff.
The state's runoff rules are arguably the nation's most comprehensive and are an outgrowth of the Clean Water Act of 1972. The shift from voluntary regional controls to uniform statewide standards reflects an understanding that runoff reaches throughout the state.
As other states face the challenges of addressing runoff regulations, Wisconsin has completed its first phase. Difficult decisions have been made here. Rules that diverse constituencies could live and work with received legislative approval in early 2002.
The ordinary nature of runoff pollution masks its tenacious and pervasive qualities. Runoff does not have an easily identifiable source. Its sources are the stuff of everyday life: lawn fertilizer that is not fully absorbed by grass; oil, antifreeze, and other substances that fall onto parking lots; erosion from a streambank, shoreline, or drainage ditch; soil from construction projects that finds its way to area waterways; pet waste and livestock manure; even unmulched leaves and grass clippings that travel unimpeded through storm sewers.
When these nutrient-rich substances find their way into streams, lakes and wetlands via rainfall and snowmelt, the results can be devastating. Excess nutrients can signal the death of desirable plant species, fish and underwater creatures.
The price paid for allowing runoff pollution is high. Ask any lakefront homeowner or vacationer who finds a lake full of algae blooms. Ask someone who enjoys the outdoors but who sees a fish kill. Ask someone who has been dissuaded from swimming or boating by sheets of smelly weeds or who has suffered through a bout of swimmer's itch at a Lake Michigan beach, at Devil's Lake or at other inland lakes.
Ask coastal community officials who must try to come up with scarce public dollars for harbor dredging. Or ask officials from states whose waters flow into the Mississippi River Basin about the multi-billion-dollar price tag they face to get rid of a persistent "dead zone" that surfaces annually in the Gulf of Mexico, the result of polluted runoff.
The pay-out from runoff pollution for restocking streams after a fish kill, frequent harbor dredging, or actual cleanup efforts, carries a much higher cost than controlling the problem at its source.
Wisconsin's runoff rules have become more than a discussion topic. They're a reality for communities that are required to control storm water and they're a part of the way businesses and agricultural interests must operate. Fortunately, there is financial assistance to bring about needed changes.
Three grant programs administered by the Department of Natural Resources provide financial support to landowners and municipal governments. Farmers and agricultural interests also have assurance that a substantial portion of any Best Management Practice (BMP) they are required to install to address runoff problems will be funded.
Todd Ambs, former executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin who now administers DNR's Water Division, played an integral role in the rules process and for him, the rules represent a major accomplishment on behalf of the people of the state.
"If you live in Wisconsin, you will be affected by these rules," Ambs says. "But that shouldn't be considered a negative. If you live in Wisconsin, you are already affected by polluted runoff. Working together with local governments and particularly the land and water conservation districts, I know we will make significant progress in assuring the health of our waterways."
One of the legacies of prior runoff programs is the growing number of farmers who share their success stories that allow them to work the land and successfully protect the environment. The commitment to research holds the promise of giving farmers practical answers they need and financial help to continue their role as land and water stewards.
"A prominent example of this is the Discovery Farms program where research farms throughout Wisconsin look at the environmental benefits installing and carrying out Best Management Practices," says Russ Rasmussen, chief of the Runoff Management Section.
There's a renewed commitment by everyone involved with the rules to come up with practical solutions and approaches that are not excessively burdensome and address the problems associated with runoff pollution.
"The key is to maintain momentum," says Al Shea, director of the Bureau of Watershed Management. "The Department of Natural Resources, state agriculture department people, and Natural Resources Conservation Service staff are working together to ensure that we can deliver coordinated programs to implement the rules and meet performance standards."
Virginia Mayo Black is a DNR publications editor and communicator for the Water Division.