Erin Houghton and tour group
Erin Houghton presenting the project to a Soil and Water Conservation Society tour group in 2015. (Photo: Courtesy of NEW Water)

When heavy rain falls in northeast Wisconsin, fertilizer and manure can wash off farm fields into nearby waterways.* This pollution contains phosphorus, which can cause algal blooms and foul surface water.

As the climate warms, the problem could get worse.

“We know we’re going to see increased precipitation events. We know we’re going to have more severe precipitation events,” says Erin Houghton of NEW Water, Green Bay’s wastewater utility.

State regulations require the utility to reduce phosphorus in the water it discharges. But instead of spending $100 million to upgrade its treatment plant, NEW Water decided to tackle the problem at its source.

The utility worked with crop and soil experts and farmers to minimize runoff. They experimented with planting cover crops, tilling the soil less, and planting grass buffers alongside fields.

Houghton says the goal is “keeping those nutrients and soil where they need to be, and on those fields, and really working for that farmer.”

She says the early results are promising, so NEW Water is expanding the project into a 20-year plan. The utility is confident that by preventing runoff in the first place, it can reduce phosphorus pollution without an expensive new treatment plant.

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Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.

*Editor’s note added 10/2/2019: This sentence has been updated to reflect the correct location of the utility.

Topics: Food & Agriculture