Yahara in situ

New report: How Yahara WINs, a water quality improvement coalition, spells success

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Post by Adena Rissman and Chloe Wardropper

For the past two years, the Yahara Watershed Improvement Network, or Yahara WINs—a coalition of municipalities, farmers, local utilities, governmental organizations, and nonprofits that is coordinated by the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District—has been testing a new approach to reducing phosphorus in the Yahara Watershed: the Watershed Adaptive Management Option (WAMO). This approach is an alternative way for regulated water pollution sources, such as wastewater facilities, to reduce the amount of phosphorus that pollutes our waterways. Instead of costly technology upgrades, the sewerage district and municipalities can pay to implement practices in rural and urban areas that will stop nutrient runoff upstream and save them, and taxpayers, money.

To understand WAMO’s viability, efforts are currently focused on a pilot project in a smaller watershed within the Yahara, the Sixmile Creek Subwatershed, which is just north of Lake Mendota. With the pilot phase well underway, we wondered what the Yahara WINs participants thought of WAMO’s potential for success in this region. The following are key findings from the survey we conducted in December of 2013, which reflect the perspectives of over half of the people on the Yahara WINs email list, a group that includes both signatories of the pilot project’s MOU and other interested parties (51 of 93 individuals responded).

Overall, the survey revealed both common concerns and diverse views on how to achieve success, which could inform efforts to expand WAMO to the entire watershed.

Map of the Yahara WINs pilot project area. Click to enlarge. Credit: Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District

What does success look like?

The survey revealed diverse opinions on what a successful pilot project would look like. The majority of respondents said improved water quality is their core criterion for success. Many also saw success as having multiple dimensions, including building community support and setting a good example for other watersheds around the country.

Ideas about what success looks like depend on the values and uses respondents associate with clean water. Definitions of success also reflect respondents’ organizational roles and responsibilities. Despite some variation in reasons for protecting water quality, everyone agreed on the importance of clean water for human health and future generations.

What is the key to success?

Participation by the agricultural community will be a major key to WAMO’s success, thought survey respondents, especially since farmers will be implementing phosphorus-reducing practices, along with municipalities. However, respondents suggested that some farmers’ concerns over data sharing and enforcement may prove to be challenging.

That said, the Yahara WINs partners from the agricultural community seemed optimistic about the potential for the pilot project’s success. Along with the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, they suggested that implementing practices to improve water quality would be less of a challenge than did respondents from municipalities, other government agencies, and environmental groups. The agricultural community also expressed support for and confidence in the network’s leadership and partnerships.

Moreover, many respondents believed modeled reductions in phosphorus may be easier to achieve than real reductions. The Yahara WINs team is using computer models to estimate how much phosphorus they need to remove to meet water quality standards. Many respondents thought it will be much easier to model success on the computer than to actually achieve it in our streams and lakes. Environmental nonprofits were particularly dubious that it would be as easy to achieve real reductions as modeled ones.

All things considered, respondents valued collaboration and viewed its continuation as crucial for success. Other perceived factors for success included strong leadership and the cost effectiveness of phosphorus-reducing measures.

What external factors could hinder success?  

Looking to the future, respondents were concerned about many external factors—those outside their control—that may negatively impact water quality. Three of the most important were the intensification of regional livestock production, increasing agricultural row crop production, and a changing political climate, all of which could impede efforts to reduce phosphorus. These external factors may lower the accuracy of modeled water quality predictions, since the models do not incorporate them. Thus, these factors should be areas for ongoing attention.

If you are interested in a copy of the 25-page report of the survey findings, please email Assistant Professor Adena Rissman at arrissman@wisc.edu. Once we have a peer-reviewed publication on the survey, we will put the full report online. We look forward to any feedback and hope these survey results can be helpful to Yahara WINs participants.

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