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August 27, 2013

Changes effective Aug. 1 require preventative maintenance and management

MADISON - Measures that build on Wisconsin's progress over the past generation in reducing sanitary sewer overflows to state lakes and rivers are now in effect and are expected to better safeguard public health and the environment while helping communities protect their sizeable investment in wastewater collection and treatment systems, state water quality officials say.

"We are really excited about these rules going into effect for many reasons," says Susan Sylvester, who leads the Department of Natural Resources water quality bureau. "They will help communities preserve their investment in vital infrastructure, better protect public health and Wisconsin lakes and rivers, and help property owners through reducing sewage backups into their homes and other buildings."

Also, importantly, Sylvester says, the rule revisions update Wisconsin's regulations to be more consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regulatory approach regarding sanitary sewerage overflows. "This was EPA's number one concern" in its July 2011 letter identifying 75 issues concerning Wisconsin's statutory and regulatory authority for its wastewater permit program.

The rules, effective Aug. 1 and found in Natural Resources chapters 110, 205, 208 and 210 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code, emphasize long-term preventative maintenance and management of sewage collection systems to reduce or eliminate sanitary sewer overflows and the human health and environmental risks they may present, Sylvester says. The changes were developed with help from an advisory group including EPA officials as well as representatives from Wisconsin's local governments and environmental groups.

"The revised rules will help communities identify problems before they become crises," she says.

State and federal law have long made sewage overflows into lakes and rivers illegal and, together with improvements in sewage treatment facilities, these laws have resulted in significant reductions in the number of overflows since the early 1970s in Wisconsin and nationally.

However, overflows have continued to occur both nationally and in Wisconsin. EPA has estimated the annual number of overflows nationwide between 23,000 and 75,000. In Wisconsin in 2013, a year with above-average precipitation in most places, 65 different communities in the state have reported one or more overflows, according to Duane Schuettpelz, the lead DNR staff member who developed the rule changes.

Sanitary sewer overflows most often occur when rainwater or groundwater entering sewer pipes through cracks or joints in the sewage pipes overwhelm the sewerage system. The system releases the excess flow in one of several ways: sewage may back up into basements through building sewers, or untreated or partially treated sewage may be released through manhole covers or at the treatment facility.

Discharges of untreated sewage can make waters unsafe for swimming and other recreational uses, contaminate drinking water supplies drawn from lakes, add nutrients that can fuel excessive algae blooms, and decrease dissolved oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to survive.

The revised rules affect 900 municipalities that own and operate sanitary sewage collection systems that are separate from storm water pipes. Milwaukee, the Village of Shorewood in the Milwaukee metropolitan area and Superior have combined sanitary and stormwater sewers and are already required through their permits to establish a management and maintenance program to reduce the number of overflow events.

The revised rules for sanitary sewer overflows specifically prohibit sanitary sewer overflows and create a consistent set of factors DNR will use to determine when and what enforcement will occur if there is noncompliance with this prohibition, Schuettpelz says.

The rule also requires public notification so that swimmers, canoeists and other outdoor enthusiasts are aware of overflows that may present a health risk.

Most importantly, the rules recognize and require in the wastewater discharge permit "common sense" activities that all permittees must do to protect the large monetary investment they have in their sewage collection systems, Schuettpelz says. Previously, such requirements were imposed through an enforcement action after a sanitary sewer overflow violation occurred.

"Many communities already have in place preventative maintenance practices that essentially meet the principles of the new requirements," he says. "These rules level the playing field so that all systems will need to have them.

"Basically, it's the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Public health and our waters will be better protected by this kind of proactive work and it is much more cost effective over the long-run for the systems and their ratepayers."

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Jack Saltes, 608-264-6045

Last Revised: Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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