The Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District’s (MMSD) looming deadline to decide how it will reduce the amount of phosphorus it discharges into Badger Mill Creek drew dozens of attendees to a public hearing at Fitchburg City Hall Thursday morning.
Unanimously, community members expressed their opposition to the MMSD staff recommendation that the phosphorus be reduced by shutting off the discharge, also known as effluent, into Badger Mill Creek — which runs southwest from its source in Madison through Verona until its confluence into the Upper Sugar River.
The district is required to reduce the phosphorus level in the creek from 0.3 milliliters per trillion gallons of water to 0.075 under its recently updated permit with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The nine-member MMSD commission is responsible for making the final decision and, under the DNR permit, must decide by the end of the month.
After months of deliberation, MMSD staff chose shutting off the effluent over options that included building additional treatment methods or finding ways to reduce phosphorus in other parts of the watershed. Since the 1990s, 8% of MMSD’s effluent has been sent into Badger Mill Creek with the idea that water taken from the Upper Sugar River watershed should remain there. The other 92% of the effluent gets sent into Badfish Creek, which runs southeast through Oregon and into the Yahara River.
“As we’ve gone through this many years of analysis we’ve come to the recommended alternative of eliminating the Badger Mill Creek return, but also providing $1 million for projects that support stream health and resiliency,” MMSD pollution prevention manager Kathy Lake said at the meeting. “So the district wants to be a good partner to all organizations in the area and we’ve seen how that stream could really be improved through these partnerships.”
Watershed advocates have said the promise of stream restoration funding along with the decision is appealing, yet MMSD staff have not yet detailed exactly what that money would be for.
Badger Mill Creek in Verona has seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in trout habitat restoration, yet one sewer district decision has locals worried about its future. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
As the district has gone through the process, community members and local government officials have warned that shutting off the effluent into Badger Mill Creek runs the risk of causing the creek to dry up. That predicted outcome would be disastrous for a stream that has become one of the highest quality trout streams in Dane County and seen hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment from adjacent communities and the county in the construction of walking paths along the water and habitat restoration.
In response to the possibility that the effluent in Badger Mill Creek be shut off, the City of Verona, village of Belleville and town of Montrose, as well as the Dane County Board, have passed resolutions urging the commission to find another option.
On the other side of the county, advocates for Badfish Creek warn that diverting more water into that stream, which already faces erosion and pollution, could damage a beloved canoeing and kayaking area and potentially harm the health of downstream residents of a more rural part of Dane County and lower income parts of Rock County.
Aside from the ecological concerns, watershed groups and local governments have alleged that they feel MMSD staff came to the problem with a preconceived bias toward shutting the water off and that communication from the staff served as perfunctory box-checking and not true engagement with all the interested groups. Complaints have also been raised that MMSD’s study of the effects that shutting off the discharge would have on Badger Mill Creek was insufficient.
MMSD representatives have said the district worked for years to get the input from local governments, watershed protection groups and community members before the decision’s deadline was imminent. Staff has also asserted it believes Badger Mill Creek will thrive without the effluent and that Badfish Creek won’t be harmed by the shifting of the flow.
At the public hearing Thursday, dozens of community members, watershed advocates and local government officials spoke in opposition to shutting off the discharge to Badger Mill Creek. MMSD staff said that at a typical commission meeting, even with a controversial topic, there are about five members of the public in attendance. On Thursday, including people watching the meeting virtually over Zoom, there were more than 70.
An aerial photo of Badfish Creek, which officials are worried could be harmed by a Madison Sewer District decision to discharge more effluent into it. (Andy Hoernemann)
“Short-term experiments cannot be used to make inferences about long-term implications,” said Robert Bohanan, president of the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association’s board of directors. “It’s a hard situation, it’s a difficult situation, it is going to require investments. It is going to have cost. And in my experience, efforts that are truly sustainable and forward-looking, they’re costly. In the short run they’re costly, but they begin to pay long-term benefits. The effect of reducing discharge will impact ecosystem services, the things that that watershed provides, that are going to have to be paid at some point by someone.”
After the public comment ended, members of the commission discussed what it meant to have the public speak in near total opposition to the staff recommendation. Commissioner Tom Wilson asked several questions about what it would mean if the body delayed a decision in order to acquire more data about the effects of shutting off the discharge.
Commissioner Marsha Rummel, a Madison City Council member who was just appointed to the body and was sitting at her first meeting, said the science behind the decision to shut off the discharge seems reasonable, but it would be a mistake to ignore the vehement objections by the public.
“So the thing that strikes me as an elected official is the almost unanimous disagreement with the proposed outcome,” Rummel said. “For me, that’s something that’s pretty serious. On the other hand, the science on the surface could be reasonable.”
The MMSD commission is set to meet May 25 to make a decision.
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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F05%2F11%2Fnear-unanimous-public-opposition-to-sewer-district-cutting-flow-to-badger-mill-creek%2F by Henry Redman