Water flowing through the Wisconsin River Basin is not as clean as it should be. Nutrients escaping fr-om septic systems, parks, golf courses, residential lawns, farms, municipal waste and commercial manufacturing plants, carried by rain and stormwater, are some of the sources of Wisconsin’s clean water challenges. Almost everything we do as a community has the potential to negatively impact our waterways.
With the Wisconsin River Basin covering 15 percent of the state and stretching through 21 counties to 109 streams and rivers and 38 lakes and reservoirs, cleaning water in the basin is no small project. Local companies, municipalities and their taxpayers invest in expensive infrastructure to work toward clean rivers and lakes. The result is that all of us are spending enormous amounts of money.
Is there a way to get better results at a lower cost? Yes.
Dairy farms and other large landholders can and should be part of the solution. Clean water comes with a high price tag, but what if farms could provide a solution for lower costs than what the municipalities and other permit holders currently pay for clean water? The answer lies in changing policy to encourage farmers to get paid for voluntarily providing environmental benefits beyond what the law requires. This is generally referred to as a market-based solution or an ecosystem services marketplace.
Newtrient, a company focused on delivering these types of win-win solutions, assessed the economics of this challenge. We found that farms can achieve the same phosphorus reduction results for about 10 percent of the cost of the municipalities and wastewater stream permit holders. Considering the Wisconsin River Basin’s total maximum daily load (TMDL) of phosphorus calls for substantial reductions, we’re looking at big savings.
The significant savings per pound of phosphorus reduced can be used to incent farmers and other landowners to invest in phosphorus reduction practices and technologies. The logic of reducing phosphorus loading in our rivers at a lower cost by paying those who can do so at a fraction of the current cost is simple and obvious. It’s a policy path worth pursuing.
The concept of buying clean water at a lower cost is nothing new, especially in Wisconsin. When compared to other states, Wisconsin takes the lead with a strong foundation of water quality programs to protect and enhance water. The current water quality programs, though well-constructed, have seen limited participation.
Newly proposed legislation has the potential to change the game. The legislation enables a third-party clearinghouse to facilitate the current water quality trading programs, providing an extra element of regulatory certainty and financial accessibility needed for farms, industry and wastewater treatment plants to work together.
It’s simple legislation to achieve noticeable environmental solutions at a lower cost.
Dairy farms of all sizes are financially incentivized to adopt new technologies and practices beyond what they’re already doing. The community reaps the benefits of lower-cost clean water projects, and municipalities and industry can reach required reductions at a much lower cost.
This would put Wisconsin at the forefront of clean water solutions, speeding up the cleaning of our streams, rivers and lakes at a reduced cost to all.
Positive story for dairy
While there is a lot of work to be done, Newtrient is confident this is the right direction for agriculture, dairy, the environment and the community. We can show how dairy farms can be a driver of environmental solutions.
Milk is a great, almost magical product, but what we can do goes far beyond traditional dairy products. We can demonstrate how dairy farms benefit our communities and society so when consumers pick up a glass of milk or stellar Wisconsin cheese, they feel they’re helping the environment.