May 23, 2024 6:40 am
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Despite Public Outcry, Madison Sewer District Decides to Shut Off Flow to Badger Mill Creek

Credit: iStock

by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner

The Madison Metropolitan Sewer District (MMSD) commission unanimously passed a resolution Thursday to shut off the flow of treated wastewater into Badger Mill Creek despite objections from local governments, community members who live near the creek and clean water interest groups. 

The decision was made as the district is being required by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to reduce the amount of phosphorus it pumps into the creek, which runs from its source on the southwest side of Madison through Verona until its confluence with the Upper Sugar River, from 0.3 milligrams per liter of water to 0.075 milligrams per liter. After a yearslong assessment process in which the district also considered adding additional treatment measures and working with other groups on the Badger Mill Creek and Upper Sugar River watersheds to reduce the total amount of phosphorus in the water system, MMSD staff decided simply shutting off the valve would be the most effective and least expensive option. 

The benefit of shutting off the water is that it immediately puts the district in compliance with its permit with the DNR. The amount of phosphorus will drop from 0.3 milligrams to zero. 

Yet locals and interest groups have contended that shutting off the flow of treated wastewater, also known as effluent, into Badger Mill Creek could harm the body of water that millions of dollars in investment from Dane County, municipalities including the city of Verona and local watershed groups has turned into one of the area’s few designated Class 2 trout streams as well as an important natural and recreational resource for a rapidly developing part of the region.

“I think the staff recommendation is the right recommendation, as frustrating as it is,” MMSD commissioner Brad Murphy said. “I’m not frustrated with the staff, I’m frustrated with not having other good alternatives. The alternatives we thought we would be able to work with were not viable, so now we’re left with this.”

Throughout the deliberation process, opponents of shutting off the water have warned that the contribution of the effluent helps keep the flow and temperature of Badger Mill Creek steady. In the 1990s when the decision was made to send part of MMSD’s effluent into Badger Mill Creek, the aim was to ensure water taken from the Sugar River watershed remains in the watershed. Locals are worried that without the effluent, Badger Mill Creek could dry up. 

In an email to MMSD, obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner through an open records request, staff in the DNR’s fisheries division warned about the effect shutting off the flow could have on the local trout population.

“Department fisheries staff have told MMSD staff that permanently eliminating the effluent stream to Badger Mill Creek will likely have deleterious impacts to the Brown Trout population and Brown Trout natural reproduction and recruitment,” DNR fisheries supervisor David Rowe wrote. “Since the addition of the MMSD effluent stream, Badger Mill Creek has changed from a warm water forage fish community with stocked catchable sized ‘put and take’ trout, into a cool-coldwater fish community and a designated Class 2 trout stream with observed natural reproduction and recruitment. Historical data shows the increase in flow and stabilization of temperature has been beneficial to the trout population and its abundance in Badger Mill Creek.” 

But MMSD staff has said that while it sees the success of the creek’s trout population as a testament to the quality of the district’s effluent — now seen as  a vital part of the ecosystem — the research and studies that went into the decision-making process have led them to believe that shutting off the water won’t significantly harm the creek’s flow. Staff also said they believe the facts on the ground and in the groundwater have changed since the 1990s and that the creek will be able to survive without the effluent. 

Because of the public opposition to shutting off the effluent, MMSD included a provision in its resolution to provide $1 million in funding to local governments and watershed groups to continue working on habitat restoration, stream bank improvements and working with other units of government to find a replacement for the lost flow. 

The resolution does not include any specifics for how the money will be spent. MMSD staff outlined a year-long process in which adjacent local governments and relevant interest groups come together to find the best uses for the funds. MMSD staff set September of 2024 — which is when the district’s DNR permit is next up for renewal — as the deadline for determining the use of those funds. 

Verona Mayor Luke Diaz previously told the Examiner his preferred solution to achieving the phosphorus reduction was some sort of adaptive management or water quality trading program which would find ways to reduce phosphorus runoff on other sections of the creek. MMSD staff decided that because the area is so developed, there aren’t enough opportunities for reducing that type of runoff which typically comes from agricultural operations. 

Diaz says that while he expected this outcome, he’s still disappointed and sees the $1 million as a “consolation prize,” adding that it’s hard to know how helpful the money will be without specifics on how it will be spent. 

“It’s really hard to tell without specifics what it might look like,” he says. “I appreciate it as a consolation or good faith effort to mitigate the harms but it’s very much a consolation prize. You’d rather get a real prize or the result you thought was best.”

In addition to worries about Badger Mill Creek, concerns have been raised about the decision’s effect on Badfish Creek — which is where the Badger Mill flow will be diverted. Currently, 92% of the district’s effluent gets sent into the Badfish, which flows from its source near Oregon into the Yahara River. The additional 8% has drawn complaints from that watershed’s interest groups and Rock County, which is the ultimate recipient of whatever MMSD sends downstream.

The Badfish, which kayakers and canoers see as one of south central Wisconsin’s best paddling opportunities, already faces problems with erosion and e coli pollution that people fear will only worsen with the additional flow and added phosphorus being diverted from Badger Mill. But MMSD staff say the amount of water flowing into the Badfish won’t increase because there’s a hard limit on the amount of water that flows into the Badfish every day while the excess will remain in the district’s holding tanks and retention ponds until it’s sent out. Staff also said that the watershed agreement program, Yahara WINS, will allow for the district to work with farms along the water to mitigate the added phosphorus. 

With the decision at the MMSD level made, the phosphorus reduction plan moves to an approval process at the DNR. Diaz says that the concerns raised by department fishery staff were a big part of the public opposition to shutting off the flow and that he hopes the DNR won’t give its approval — kicking the decision back down to MMSD to choose a different option. 

“I don’t think the DNR should approve the water quality amendment because of the harm it does to Badger Mill Creek,” Diaz says. “The statements from the fish biologist were clear about the shape the creek is in now. I think they would be obligated to turn this down. At this point I would trust the DNR a lot more than MMSD staff. I guess that would make me feel a little bit better. I think that would carry weight with a lot of people. Some of the opposition that was stirred up to the plan was because there were clearly indicators out of the DNR this was going to be harmful. It felt like it was ignored today. If the DNR said everything will be fine, that would have quieted a lot of opposition.”

Because of the approval process and timeline built into MMSD’s current permit, Thursday’s decision does not automatically mean a valve gets shut off. The initial deadline for compliance with the phosphorus requirements is 2028, though staff said the exact date is unclear because that initial deadline included an allowance for the time it would take to construct new treatment capabilities.

This story was written by Henry Redman, a staff reporter at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.