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About Wisconsin’s waters.
Goals for water resources.
Monitoring water quality.
Assessments & reporting
Evaluating condition.
Planning for water quality.
Managing water resources.
Contact information
For information contact:
Matthew Claucherty
Adaptive Management Coordinator
608 264-9244

Wisconsin’s adaptive management Innovation to support partner goals and clean water.

Adaptive Management Handbook

Adaptive Management Technical Handbook [PDF]

Adaptive management (AM) is a compliance option that allows owners of point and nonpoint sources of phosphorus to work together to improve water quality to meet water quality standards. Adaptive management recognizes excess phosphorus in lakes and rivers is the result of a variety of activities and sources; both point and nonpoint source reductions are often needed to achieve water quality standards.

USGS Gage Station

USGS Gage Station.

About adaptive management

Facilities that discharge phosphorus can work with landowners, municipalities, and counties to target nonpoint sources (runoff) of phosphorus to minimize their overall fiscal outlays while achieving compliance with water quality-based criteria and improving water quality. The AM Technical Handbook [PDF] describes the process including how to develop a successful AM strategy.

Adaptive Management vs. Water Quality Trading
Although similar, adaptive management (AM) differs from water quality trading (WQ trading). In both cases, point sources may take credit for phosphorus reductions in a watershed that leads to phosphorus standards compliance. While the practices for generating phosphorus reductions may be similar, these two compliance options have different permit requirements which affect the overall permit process and timing.

  • End goals: AM focuses on achieving phosphorus surface water water quality criteria. WQ trading offsets phosphorus from a discharge to achieve compliance with a permit limit.
  • Monitoring: AM focuses on water quality improvements through in-stream monitoring; this is not required under WQ trading.
  • Timing: practices used to generate reductions through WQ trading must be established before the phosphorus limit takes affect; AM is a watershed project that can be implemented throughout the permit term (five years).
  • Quantifying reductions: WQ trading requires trade ratios to quantify reductions that offset a permit limit; AM reductions are measured by monitoring the receiving water, not the effluent, and therefore trade ratios sent a point source facility considering adaptive management, follow the steps below to determine eligibility.
  • Eligibility: the two options have different eligibility requirements.

Benefits of adaptive management

For eligible participants, adaptive management (AM) may be very beneficial. Below are a few positive aspects of using adaptive management to consider.

  • Permit compliance through AM may be economically preferable to other compliance options.
  • Point sources and partner nonpoint sources demonstrate commitment to their community and the environment by restoring local water resources.
  • Dischargers receive less restrictive interim phosphorus limits while they work with partners to improve water quality. These less restrictive phosphorus limits may become permanent if adaptive management is successful and phosphorus water quality standards are restored.
  • Adaptive management provides flexibility for permittees and partners to learn from each other and adapt with experience. The AM option can extend over a 15-year timeframe (up to three five-year permit terms). This time is provided so the permittee can install phosphorus reduction practices, create new partnerships, and measure success.


To be eligible for adaptive management, review these requirements and go through the steps below to determine a facility’s eligibility.

  • The receiving water is exceeding the applicable phosphorus criteria.
  • Filtration or equivalent technology is required to meet proposed or new phosphorus limit.
  • Nonpoint sources contribute 50 percent or more of the total phosphorus entering the receiving water.

Analyze data

Step 1: find in-stream phosphorus data: DNR calculates phosphorus WQBELs for each facility. Review data from DNR's water quality database to confirm this determination prior to permit reissuance:

Step 2: Determine nonpoint source contributions: DNR has completed this calculation for most permitted municipal and industrial facilities with phosphorus monitoring using a GIS-based model, “Pollutant load Ratio EStimation TOol (PRESTO)”. Learn about the PRESTO model at PRESTO model output.

Step 3: Once you have selected adaptive management as your compliance option and have determined that you are eligible, submit the adaptive management eligibility form [PDF] to your local DNR wastewater engineer, specialist, or adaptive management coordinator and begin developing an adaptive management plan.

AM plans

Adaptive management plans identify actions that will achieve compliance with applicable in-stream phosphorus criterion through verifiable reductions of phosphorus from point and nonpoint sources. One or multiple WPDES permitted facilities can be covered under the same adaptive management plan. There are nine key components to develop a successful adaptive management plan:

  1. Identify partners
  2. Describe the watershed and determine load reduction goals
  3. Conduct a watershed inventory
  4. Identify where reductions will occur
  5. Describe management measures
  6. Estimate load reductions expected within the permit term
  7. Identify how you will measure success
  8. Describe financial security for the project
  9. Provide an implementation schedule with milestones

See the AM Technical Handbook [PDF] for details on developing a successful AM plan. The plan must be submitted to DNR by the due date of preliminary alternatives evaluation in the phosphorus compliance schedule. All final Department decisions are available at WPDES permits on public notice.

Tips to developing an AM Plan:

  • Seek out a variety of partners to help develop and implement adaptive management.
    County Land Conservation Departments, environmental and agricultural groups, lake associations, DNR, etc.
  • Start early. Adaptive management is an option that builds new partnerships and tackles watershed concerns. Building effective partnerships and identifying opportunities can take time.
  • Prioritize management practices. Once on-the-ground practices have been identified try to prioritize them based on their proximity to the receiving water, time needed to establish, or their likelihood for success.
  • Open communication. Every adaptive management plan will be unique and as a new compliance option it is important to keep communication open between permittees, adaptive management partners, and regional DNR adaptive management coordinators.

Models, viewers and nutrient reduction tools

Map of AM / WQ trading locations

Water quality models & tools

Calculation of pollutant reductions

  • Pollutant reductions from streambank stabilization projects should be calculated using site-specific measurements, soil test nutrient concentrations, and the NRCS Erosion Estimator [Workbook].

Links to key program sites


Phosphorus webinar series: Informational phosphorus webinars. This webinar series explores implementing the phosphorus rules and includes phosphorus discharge limits for WPDES permittees, compliance schedules, adaptive management, and water quality trading. Consider viewing these short webinars if you are involved with WPDES permits.

Know the rule: Rule content is available for download:

To help explain the revised rule content in NR 102, NR 217, and NR 151, a question and answer-style rule summary document [PDF] has been created.

Factsheets: Several factsheets have been developed to summarize the phosphorus rule and innovative approaches to comply with this rule.

Adaptive Management and Water Quality Trading:

Other resources:

Contact information: If you have questions, comments or feedback about phosphorus implementation, rule content, or adaptive management and water quality trading please email us.
Last revised: Tuesday June 05 2018