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Scrap the plan

Staff at the Marathon County Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department last week Tuesday unveiled a final, fifth chapter to a 10-year land and water resource plan and called for public feedback prior to the Environmental Resources Committee voting on the document.

We have this reaction. Scrap it. The plan is a fraud within a dodge wrapped up in a scam.

It would promise the public a cleaner environment that would meet federal EPA standards for surface water. To do this, however, the plan relies on the state legislature to pass stricter ag regulations for Marathon County, which is highly unlikely. Further, the plan remains open to having farmers voluntarily comply with new phosphorus run-off restrictions. They won’t.

The proposed land and water document won’t help the environment. Instead, it will only give county supervisors, the DNR and the DATCP fifty pages of paper to waive around and claim they are all helping the environment without the politically heavy lift of tasking farmers to do anything differently.

The plan seeks to address the EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study of the Wisconsin River Basin. This study, based on three years of water samples, showed that great swaths of western county farmland must reduce phosphorus-rich runoff by 80 percent to support fishing and swimming in the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir and Lakes Petenwell and Castle Rock.

The plan calls on the state legislature to impose targeted performance standards on Marathon County, lowering phosphorus caps from the current statewide maximum of six pounds per acre to 2.5 pounds per acre. The plan, as well, asks the state legislature to also impose a 35-foot tillage buffer around all waterways.

The state legislature won’t approve this. We called up members of the Assembly Agriculture Committee and asked them if they would support such an initiative. Not one returned a phone call.

But things get even crazier. The plan doesn’t expect the county board to necessarily enact tougher regulations even if the state legislature, by some miracle, were to approve them. The plan, instead, anticipates a policy discussion over the next several years to debate whether the new state phosphorus regulations should be mandatory or voluntary. This is a slow walk to oblivion. Think about a city that asks the state legislature to lower the speed limit on a state highway and, when that happens, declines to give tickets to speeders, saying that people should voluntarily obey the new speed limit.

Our complaint here is not merely on behalf of the environment, which will continue to be sullied under the proposal. It is on behalf of everybody in this county who pays a sewer bill or disposal hauling charge. As old wastewater plants need to be rebuilt, cities and villages in this county are spending millions of dollars to upgrade these old facilities to TMDL standards. These municipalities will substantially increase sewer charges paid by homeowners and industry to lower phosphorus discharges. These higher charges won’t be voluntary. They will be mandatory. The state and county should make everybody, including ag producers, accountable for the phosphorus they discharge.

The land and water proposal, sadly, is stuck in old, unproductive thinking that has proven ineffective on the landscape. It aspires to address agricultural pollution, but fails to address the sweeping, catastrophic changes in the farm economy. The plan can’t stop telling farmers how to farm. It mandates a tillage buffer to reduce phosphorus when it should allow farmers to figure out for themselves how to reach a phosphorus goal. The plan, further, is captive of old, ineffective regulatory models. We’d much prefer to see a cap and trade system where farmers, able to control their phosphorus run-off, can sell credits to farmers who either can’t or won’t.

The Marathon County environment continues to get worse, not better, especially as more county acres are dedicated to erosionprone row crops like corn and soybeans. It would be embarrassing, of course, to feature this dismal reality in a 10-year plan. Such a proposal, however, would at least be honest.