Gov. Scott Walker has apparently backed off his plan to repeal a rule passed last year that sets limits in Wisconsin lakes and streams for phosphorus, a nutrient from fertilizers which causes weed and algae growth.
Instead, Walker has proposed that the new rule not be put in place for two years, according to Cathy Stepp, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources. Stepp testified on the proposal, and other conservation-related items in the budget, before the state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee Monday.
Stepp said municipal officials and others affected by the rule told the agency that implementing the tougher statewide standard would be too expensive during this difficult economic period. Some communities estimated they would have to raise sewage treatment rates by as much as $900 per customer per year.
"Governor Scott Walker's budget recognizes that this is not the time to force communities to take out very substantial loans to upgrade wastewater treatment plants. They can't afford these investments, nor can their ratepayers, your constituents," Stepp told the committee.
Several members of the budget-review committee questioned the proposed delay in controlling phosphorus, which can fuel the growth of toxic blue-green algae. They included state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, and state Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar.
"You've mentioned the economic reasons for not moving ahead on phosphorus," Jauch said. "But what happens to the land? What happens to our lakes if the state fails to enforce stronger phosphorus limits?"
Initially, Walker wanted to repeal the numeric standards set in the new rule and replace them with more vague narrative standards that would be no more strict than limits set in surrounding states. That proposal was widely criticized by environmental groups and by members of the Natural Resources Board, which sets policy for the DNR and approved the phosphorus rules last year.
Melissa Mallott, with the environmental group Clean Wisconsin, said repealing the rule would have likely put the state in violation of the federal Clean Water Law because the new state standard had already been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Jennifer Giegerich, legislative director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, remained critical of the two-year delay. She said the rules were approved after months of discussion and cooperation that resulted in a flexible implementation plan, including exemptions from deadlines for financially-strapped communities.
"It's a concern because it's not clear what we're going to gain from it," Giegerich said.
Stepp said Monday that the two-year delay would give the state more time to see what other states do and allow time to come up with easier, less costly ways for municipalities and businesses to meet the new standards.
"The two-year effective date delay will allow time for other states to complete adoption of similar requirements, leveling the business playing field," Stepp said.