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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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June 2003

Putting money behind policy

Public financing is critical to moving polluted runoff rules to reality.

Lisa Gaumnitz

Financing control of rural runoff

A trickle of funds for a flood of urban problems

Cleaning up Wisconsin's lakes and rivers depends heavily on giving farmers like Rudy and Marcella Stadler a helping hand.

The Ozaukee County livestock farmers spent $15,000 and the county $40,000 to improve their barnyard and build a covered manure storage pit to keep their livestock and the animals' manure out of a picturesque reach of the Milwaukee River.

"We figured that as long as the government was going to pay a good portion of it, we'd go ahead and have it done," Marcella Stadler says. "Cost sharing was a big part of it."

A decade since that cooperative investment, public financing remains a critical component of reducing runoff from private lands. In fact, it's the linchpin of new rules to reduce runoff from farms. The rules for existing livestock facilities and cropland practices can't be enforced against farmers unless the government has offered to pay at least 70 percent of the cost of installing or implementing methods to keep soil and manure on the land.

"Without the funding, there's really no rule," says Ozaukee County Conservationist Andy Holschbach. "For us to do our jobs at the county level, the funding is of the utmost importance. With the price of milk really low, you're dealing with landowners who have really tight budgets."

State environmental officials estimate the cost to government and farmers of reducing polluted runoff from farms at more than $57 million annually if the control measures are implemented over 10 years. In the past, conservation officials say, lawmakers have stepped up and provided adequate funding to help share the cost to farmers who voluntarily installed runoff controls.

Polluted runoff rules have moved from lawmaking to land practices. © Robert Queen
Polluted runoff rules have moved from lawmaking to land practices.

© Robert Queen

Whether lawmakers continue that commitment and whether those dollars will stretch far enough – and be flexible enough – with mandatory runoff controls, remains to be seen.

Urban areas also have standards. The estimated cost to state and local governments, individual landowners and developers range from about $30 million per year in the early phase of the effort – 2002 through 2007 – to more than $90 million annually in the later years, after 2013. Urban runoff must be controlled whether or not cost-sharing is available.

There has been, and will continue to be, a relatively small pot of state grant money available to urban areas. Even though state and federal government also make low-interest rate loans available to municipalities to manage storm water, it's a far cry from the sum available a generation ago when Wisconsin sought to clean up water pollution caused by old and inadequate public sewage treatment plants.

"The grant picture for the urban side is less robust," says John Pfender, Department of Natural Resources planning analyst. "The state is basically providing seed money. Communities will get some grants to help get the ball rolling to develop and implement municipal storm water management programs, but the state cannot fund the whole thing." Cities can fold these costs into water bills or stormwater assessments.

Financing control of rural runoff

Given low prices for milk and other farm commodities, farmers faced with meeting runoff performance standards need three kinds of help: an assessment of the runoff controls they need, technical help in designing those controls, and money to get the measures in the ground.

Counties and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection provide the first two. The third piece – money to help put in the controls – will heavily rely on the 25-year-old Wisconsin Priority Watershed and Lake Program. That DNR program has annually made about $12 million available to counties to work with landowners like the Stadlers to voluntarily sign cost-sharing agreements to implement controls. The cost-share money is only available in priority watersheds that have impaired lakes or rivers and a state-approved plan for tackling the water quality problem.

Thirty-five priority watershed projects have been completed and 51 are in progress. As each of those ongoing projects reaches the end of its 10-year contract with the state conservation officials hope the money will be available for use elsewhere, Pfender says. All projects will close out by 2009.

In the meantime, farmers also may get state help from DNR's Targeted Runoff Management (TRM) Grants. Counties can use these competitive grants for short-term runoff control projects anywhere in the state – not just in priority watersheds. There also is some cost-share funding available through the state agriculture department's Soil and Water Resources Management Program.

Drawbacks, Pfender says, are limits on the control measures eligible for funding. Since the state raises money for TRM grants through bond sales, practices must be bricks and mortar improvements – tangible structures such as manure pits and the like – not "soft practices" such as conservation tillage and nutrient management plans, Pfender says.

The situation is better for Priority Watershed and Lake grants. Most of the funding is available as a result of bonding, but there is a small amount of general purpose tax revenues and federal funding which can be used for soft practices.

Concrete pits and other structures are more expensive, require more maintenance, and operate after the soil has started to move, unlike "soft practices," which tend to be more economical because they keep the soil on the land in the first place. Unfortunately, as conservation agencies are trying to move away from funding structures and focus more on farming practices that slow runoff, taxes available to pay for such practices are shrinking.

Fortunately, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service expects to receive increased funding for its conservation programs that provide farmers cost-sharing or incentive payments for reducing erosion and runoff.

A trickle of funds for a flood of urban problems

"There is some state money available for municipalities," Pfender says, "but the bottom line is we have a tremendous amount of need with a small budget."

There are two primary sources of state grant funds: the TRM grants and the Urban Nonpoint Source and Storm Water Management grants. A municipality can apply for TRM grants and use them to address urban runoff – but only if the community doesn't have a storm water sewer system regulated as a point source under the storm water discharge program. This funding can only be used to construct Best Management Practices.

Under TRM, a community can receive a grant up to $150,000 for construction projects.

DNR's Urban Nonpoint Grant Source Program is more flexible. Any community that wants to conduct a project in an urban area can apply for a grant, even if the community is regulated under the storm water permit program. A community can receive a grant of up to $100,000 for planning activities or $150,000 (plus an extra $50,000 for land acquisition) for construction projects.

Planning funds help them develop ordinances that will require new development to be designed, built and maintained to minimize and control runoff. User taxes, like storm water surcharges, provide a reliable source of income to install runoff controls.

Generally, storm water utilities charge single-family homes a flat fee while commercial and industrial property owners are charged by the amount of impervious surfaces such as parking lots and roof top areas.

"It's a good partnership," Pfender says. "Once a community gets storm water utility in place, it really can cover costs of carrying out storm water management programs."

Lisa Gaumnitz is a public affairs manager for the DNR Water Program.