Dealing with uncertainty in achieving clean water

Post by Jenny Seifert

Environmental regulations in the United States are often based on the assumption that we can measure improvement or degradation, or at least estimate it through mathematical models. Yet, those who take these measurements in the field or calculate impacts at a computer understand there are issues with these data – namely, issues of uncertainty.

For instance, when it comes to water quality, volunteer monitors play an important role in helping to track nutrient levels, but they often don’t venture out to streams and rivers to take measurements during a crucial time for runoff – during storms (and we don’t blame them!). At the other end of the data, modelers know their estimates are only as good as the baseline measurements that go into them, such as those taken by the volunteers. The resulting uncertainty translates as questions such as whether efforts to improve water quality will actually work and how long it will take to even notice.

So how does the uncertainty tied to water quality monitoring and modeling affect people’s perceptions of the risks associated with regulatory programs and of their success? In other words, how does the rubber hit the road when it comes to actually implementing water quality regulations?

To help answer these questions, researchers from the Water Sustainability and Climate project interviewed and surveyed a group in the Yahara Watershed that is going about an innovative way to improve water quality and are grappling with the inherent uncertainties of the process.

The group, the Yahara Watershed Improvement Network (WINs), was created by the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and includes representatives from the sewerage district, local municipalities, nonprofits and a farmer-led coalition. Their aim is to reduce phosphorus concentrations in Badfish Creek, a tributary of the Rock River to which MMSD discharges its cleaned-up wastewater, in order to meet the state’s phosphorus limits.

They are trying to achieve this goal through the successful implementation of Wisconsin’s Watershed Adaptive Management Option. This fledgling regulatory program gives point sources of nutrient pollution, like sewerage districts, the option to comply with runoff regulations by paying nonpoint sources, like farmers and municipalities, to undertake runoff reduction strategies – such as cover cropping and fall leaf cleanup, respectively – rather than the more costly option of upgrading their wastewater treatment technology.

A new study published in the journal Land Use Policy explains what the researchers found out about how members of Yahara WINs understand and deal with uncertainty as they implement adaptive management, especially while in their four-year pilot phase. The study’s lead author, Chloe Wardropper, offered some key insights from what they learned.

Why choose Yahara WINS as your case study?

CW: The Yahara WINs pilot project was the first to use the Watershed Adaptive Management Option to comply with Wisconsin’s Phosphorus Rules. As of the summer of 2017, Yahara WINs is in the process of getting approval from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. EPA to go forward with a full-scale permit, meaning it will transition from its pilot phase to complete implementation across the watershed.

Because Yahara WINs is the first of its kind, this group is really working through all the kinks and uncertainties of this regulatory option. They’re bringing to light questions like how long will it actually take to see results in Badfish Creek through this watershed-wide effort. The phosphorus rule currently gives 20 years to reach appropriate levels. Will that be enough time? Everyone across the environmental, agricultural, and urban stormwater sectors is watching this project to see what happens.

Why is it important to understand uncertainty in this context?

CW: Uncertainty can make or break a collaboration. Yahara WINs requires many different stakeholder groups to work. Staff at the Wisconsin DNR and EPA need to have confidence this program will work in order to allow it to go forward. Water ratepayers across the watershed, who are partially funding this project, must have confidence that their money is going toward a viable effort. Farmers who are getting paid to plant cover crops want a fair rate. And MMSD wants assurance that their efforts won’t fail, as failure would potentially mean a costly upgrade for their treatment plant.

Because all of these stakeholder groups want assurance of success, they rely on interim measurements and estimates of runoff reduction in order to make decisions to go forward with the project. Yet there is uncertainty in these measurements and estimates, so they have to weigh the uncertainty of the metrics against the costs and benefits of participating in the project.

How did Yahara WINS hedge against the uncertainty inherent in their work?

CW: One way Yahara WINs leaders responded to uncertainty was by advocating to change the rules of the adaptive management option. Along with other sewerage districts in Wisconsin, MMSD successfully encouraged the Wisconsin legislature to lengthen the compliance timeline from 15 to 20 years to allow more time to improve water quality. MMSD has also worked hard to cultivate relationships with project partners so that others trust them as a project leader, even if interim metrics of success are uncertain.

Overall, in this project at least, there was an iterative process of talking to partners, taking a course of action, and then going to regulators and other parties to seek adjustments to rules. The pilot stage of the project allowed all of the parties involved to try new practices, forge partnerships and experiment with the process.

What do your findings mean for water quality policy more broadly?

CW: Because the Watershed Adaptive Management Option leaves most of the process of water quality improvement up to the sewerage districts or other regulated entities, it can encourage these groups to reach out and collaborate with other stakeholder groups. It is important to include diverse land and water users in water quality improvement efforts because water pollution comes from many different sources; although, there is no guarantee that collaboration will improve water quality in the long run.

We also found there is clearly a place for federal and state regulations in driving water quality improvement innovation. In almost all market-led water quality programs across the United States like this one, the implementation of a federal rule has been the driver of those programs. Yahara WINs is no different. Its experimentation and the partnerships between disparate watershed groups came about because of the federal Clean Water Act and the Wisconsin Phosphorus Rules. While the agricultural community in the Yahara Watershed is not imminently on the hook for downstream pollution, the point source, MMSD, has been motivated by their regulatory obligations to form partnerships to persuade farmers to participate in the program.

That said, there is still a lack of clarity among program partners and observers about what will happen should the project fail to significantly reduce phosphorus concentrations in water bodies. Will the Yahara Watershed get a new sewage treatment plant? Or will there be a new effort like this in 20 years with no guarantee of success? The hope is that the partnerships and adaptive processes that have been formed through the Yahara WINs pilot project will enable watershed stakeholders to learn from successes and failures to continuously improve approaches to watershed management.