How We’re Working to Solve Green Bay’s Pollution Problem

May 1, 2018

Imagine: an area under Green Bay’s surface so low in oxygen that it can’t support life. The cause? Algae fueled by runoff pollution that flows into the bay.

Every time it rains, runoff pollution carries excess nutrients into the streams and rivers that flow into Green Bay. While runoff comes from urban and suburban sources, like sewage treatment plants, nearly 46% of harmful runoff pollution comes from sediment, fertilizer, and manure running off of agricultural land.

In the greater Green Bay area, we’re working with our partners to implement a combination of tactics to solve the watershed’s runoff problem.

An innovative approach to water treatment

Wisconsin has water quality standards in place, but the Fox River is a huge watershed with many sources of nutrients and sediment. So managing water quality is a challenging task.

The NEW Water (Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District) wastewater treatment plant sits at the mouth of the Lower Fox River, where it flows into Green Bay. NEW Water has been in compliance with Wisconsin water rules for years, but the state is ratcheting down pollution limits for NEW Water to try to improve water quality in Green Bay. Further reducing nutrients and sediment discharged from the plant is becoming increasingly costly, with diminishing returns. In fact, the plant would have to spend upwards of $100 million to remove a small proportion (9,832 lbs.) of the estimated 1.2 million pounds of phosphorus delivered annually from all sources to the plant and discharged to the river.

NEW Water is examining better ways to treat it’s effluent and a unique, innovative approach to improving water quality called the Adaptive Management Option. If approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, NEW Water will begin deploying this new approach next year. The “Adaptive Management Option” essentially means changing land management practices to stop runoff pollution at its source.

This approach allows the people at NEW Water to step outside the treatment plant and into the fields and meeting rooms with agricultural experts and other partners to address the runoff problem. To this end, NEW Water is working with the Alliance, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, County Government, the Oneida Tribe and others to promote conservation approaches for land management to farmers.

“We’re promoting profitable, and sustainable conservation approaches for farmers,” said Bill Hafs, Director of Environmental Programs at NEW Water. “This is an economic opportunity for agriculture, a savings for NEW Water rate payers, and a way to focus water quality efforts on the largest sources of nutrients and sediment—non-point runoff.”

Our solution starts by building strong relationships with agriculture

“Over the 3 years we’ve had the farmer roundtable, we’ve worked with over 100 individual farmers, which is more than half of farmers in the basin,” said Molly Meyers, who holds a joint position with UW-Green Bay and the Alliance and leads our agricultural outreach efforts.

Since 2016, Meyers has spearheaded the team that organizes the annual Farmer Watershed Roundtable. The roundtable is an opportunity for farmers to hear from their peers and crop consultants—trusted experts who advise farmers on crop and land management. They talk shop and share best practices for reducing runoff.

In addition to working with farmers on an ongoing basis and leading the roundtable, Meyers and her team work with about 30 crop consultants who cover about 90% of the watershed. Over the past three years, the number of participants at the Farmer Watershed Roundtable has doubled from 70 farmers in 2016 to 140 in 2018. And it’s having an impact.

We’ve seen farmers that attend the roundtables make changes, which collectively has a big impact,” Meyers said. She explained that the farmers she works with are changing their ways to favor proven methods that reduce runoff, “It’s exciting to see the uptick in cover crops and no-till practices.”

Bringing people together for clean water

Over the past year, the Alliance has partnered with University of Wisconsin-Green Bay to hold a series of clean water roundtables with farmers, researchers, government officials, business leaders, and more. Participants shared their perspectives on water quality and talked about what they can do to improve it. For farmers, this means changing land management practices.

On March 6th, all those conversations, relationships, and clean water aspirations came together at Lambeau Field in a culminating Leadership Roundtable. Farmers and leaders in the agricultural community were joined by representatives from the other roundtables to create a plan of action.

This is the first time all these groups have come together on the issue of clean water, and they’ve already committed to create a collaborative action plan to reduce runoff pollution. We’re excited that so many people from across the watershed are committed to cleaning up the Lower Fox River and Green Bay. And we look forward to supporting a collaborative, innovative approach to tackling the area’s runoff problem as this watershed-wide effort moves into a new phase of action.