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The Multi-Discharger Phosphorus Variance: Is it right for your community?

Pat Morrow, PE | with 0 Comments

The Multi-Discharger Phosphorus Variance: Is it right for your community?
Pat spoke at the Wisconsin Rural Water Association Annual Technical Conference in La Crosse on March 30, 2017. His presentation provided an overview of the variance and what it means for communities who choose to participate.

The EPA provided their long-awaited approval of Wisconsin’s Multi-Discharger Variance (MDV) for phosphorus on February 6, 2017. The State of Wisconsin enacted new phosphorus rules in 2010, which resulted in very strict permit limits for many municipal and industrial dischargers. These strict permit limits represented more than a 10-fold reduction in phosphorus discharge and would require costly upgrades for several communities. In fact, the new phosphorus rules had a projected cost of $6 Billion over 20 years for the State of Wisconsin, based on DNR and DOA evaluations.
The variance is a result of efforts that began in 2013, with the passage of Act 378, and related follow-up efforts by DNR and DOA. The MDV is just that—a variance mechanism for multiple dischargers to use a streamlined variance process similar to what other states have done previously for Chlorides and Mercury. The EPA approved the MDV for a period of 10 years, and is renewable for an additional five, should DNR wish to apply for renewal. At the end of the variance, compliance with the strict phosphorus limits will be required.
While many have called the MDV a “Statewide Variance,” that terminology is actually a misnomer. This is because not everyone will be eligible to apply for the variance. Specifically, there are nine counties (Dane, Eau Claire, Forest, Green, Menominee, St. Croix, Sawyer, Vilas and Washburn) in Wisconsin where the MDV is not applicable for municipal permit holders. Municipal permit holders within the remaining counties in Wisconsin are all eligible to consider the variance. However, eligibility for participation is further tied to whether or not a major facility upgrade is needed to meet the phosphorus limit and impacts of the necessary upgrade(s) to the municipality’s sewer rates as a percentage of the municipality’s Median Household Income.  
As a condition of the variance, permittees would be responsible for gradually reducing their phosphorus discharge over the 10 or 15-year variance period. While many communities currently have phosphorus limits of 1.0 mg/L, under the MDV they would reduce phosphorus discharges to meet interim limits of 0.8, 0.6 and 0.5 mg/L at five-year milestones. Some communities will receive more strict interim limits if their treatment facilities have demonstrated the ability to remove phosphorus to levels lower than the standard interim limits. Generally speaking, communities must be able to meet at least the first interim limit in order to enroll in the MDV, which means many small communities would need to upgrade their facilities just to participate.
While discharging at the interim limits, municipalities would also be responsible to fund improvements on the agricultural landscape to reduce phosphorus runoff. The amount of phosphorus to be reduced is calculated based on the difference between the permittee’s discharge and a target value of 0.2 mg/L or the applicable threshold value for those within an approved Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). There are three options for funding improvements on the agricultural landscape:
  • Payment of $50 per pound of phosphorus discharged in excess of the target value to participating County Land and Water Conservation Departments.
  • Enter into an agreement with DNR to implement watershed projects that reduce the prescribed amount of phosphorus.
  • Enter into an agreement with a third party to implement watershed projects that reduce the prescribed amount of phosphorus.
Whether the MDV is the right option will be community-specific. Some communities may find it is more economically feasible to achieve compliance through Adaptive Management or Water Quality Trading. Still others may find that an individual economic hardship variance under Wisconsin Statutes 283.15 will be necessary.
Is the MDV right for your community? The appropriate compliance approach can only be determined after thoughtful planning and evaluation. The MDV is not a one-size-fits-all compliance alternative and is certainly not a “Get out of jail free” card! MSA can help you navigate the options and work with you to identify the phosphorus compliance option most appropriate for your community.
Pat Morrow, PE, is a senior project engineer at MSA. He has more than 13 years’ experience in biological and chemical phosphorous removal processes, and activated sludge process modeling, operation and troubleshooting. Pat’s knowledge in watershed management has put him in charge of one of Wisconsin’s first Adaptive Management planning projects for nonpoint phosphorus reduction in the City of Lodi. 

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