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U.S. EPA launches a Kickapoo River watershed study
WW Treatment Plants in Kickapoo Valley
VILLAGE TREATMENT PLANTS up and down the Kickapoo River Valley could benefit from a study launched recently by U.S. EPA. The study aims to identify non-engineering solutions to the phosphorous limit problems the local utilities have been experiencing in recent years.

KICKAPOO RIVER VALLEY - Cissy Ma, research engineer with U.S. EPA Office of Research and Development in Cincinnati, Ohio, led a virtual kick-off meeting for a ‘Kickapoo River Watershed Integrated Management Study’ on Thursday, Feb. 4  The project was first explored at a meeting held in Readstown in 2019.

“Compliance with limits on phosphorous and other nutrients puts pressure on small, often rural communities, because of the financial and technical challenges,” Ma explained to the group of nearly 30 researchers and conservations professionals participating in the meeting.  “Additionally, the increased flood risk results in sewer overflow in wastewater treatment plants and infrastructure damage, agricultural field runoff and riverbank erosion, causing worse water quality down-stream.”  

Ma explained that ‘end-of-pipe’ treatment upgrades alone may not achieve the required effluent quality improvement outcome, and can impose an economic burden to individual rural communities that cannot afford it.  

“This project proposes to investigate the potential for small, rural municipalities to comply with water quality requirements by applying regionalization and integrated watershed approaches to address nutrient requirements, while also providing other water quality benefits at the watershed scale (sediments, habitat, flow, aquifer recharge),” Ma explained.  

Ma explained that the study will involve all 10 of the communities in the Kickapoo River Watershed, from Wauzeka in Crawford County up to Wilton and Norwalk in Monroe County. The team of researchers are looking to make contact as soon as possible with operators of the wastewater treatment plants in those communities, and will also work with the WDNR to access existing records about each community’s situation with their treatment plant.

“The issues these community’s have with their wastewater treatment plants is compounded by repeated flooding events in the valley,” Ma said. “This makes non-engineering watershed treatments more valuable to the communities – both to offset their phosphorous limits but also to reduce and control flooding.

Project overview

Ma explained that the project goal is to look for integrated solutions to the challenges faced by villages in the watershed. These integrated solutions could include things like water quality trading between the village and nearby agricultural landowners, adaptive management, green or natural infrastructure such as land use changes, wetlands, streambank restoration, measures to increase soil infiltration of water and decrease peak rain event flows, things to increase baseflow in streams, and more.

“Wisconsin is really one of the only states in the nation that has an existing water quality trading program in place, so that will be a big advantage," Ma said. “The economic outcome of these activities could be an increased in ecotourism opportunities (fishing, canoeing, birding), as well as an opportunity for farmers in the area of regenerative agriculture.”

The study will occur in two phases;

Phase I will provide the         comprehensive system analysis comparison of upgraded systems required for compliance and market-based approach (water quality trading, WQT), adaptive management plans (AM), or a hybrid of the two, to identify pollution reduction credits of various ecological services use in the NR 151 or NR 217.18 permitting. This phase will be completed by September of 2021.

Phase II will expand be-yond wastewater treatment plants and compliance issues, and conduct hydrological and hydraulic valuation of the geographic trading area, ecological modeling of ecosystem services, topography, water quality, water quantity, soil, land use and flooding mitigation and aquifer recharge potential, as well as nutrient and sediment loading potential trade-offs, and the impacts to the downstream rivers such as the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.   Multiple metrics will be used to evaluate environmental impacts.  Watershed costing economic models and non-monetary models will be applied.

According to Ma, questions to be answered by the research include:

• Does the watershed market-based approach provide compliance with effluent limits in a more cost-effective and long term way?

• Does the integrated management approached holistically quantify the multi-benefits for the long term? In other words, does it:

• Address water quality issues in local watersheds, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico

• Does it balance nutrient and sediment loading with other impacts such as global warming potential, cumulative energy use, water use, health risks, habitat, biodiversity, and etc.

• Does the cost benefit analysis of the initial investment compare well with the long-term (life cycle) benefits

• Does the project support climate adaptation and community resiliency

Research team

The research team is composted of two main organizations – the Applied Ecological Services Group, and the Eastern Research Group.

Leading the Applied Ecological Services (AES) Group are Joseph Miller and Steven Apfelbaum. The mission of the company, based in Brodhead, Wisconsin, is “to create ecologically-driven land-use solutions that are practical, economical, and based on the best science and technology.”

According to their website, Applied Ecological Services was born in the late 1970s, when founder Steve Apfelbaum partnered with his mentor Dr. Jim Ludwig to begin the experiment that became the successful reclamation of the Jackson County Iron Mine. 

Apfelbaum and Ludwig collected native prairie seed in the wild to re-vegetate the waste rock and tailings piles because, at the time, there were no native seed nurseries in the Midwest that could provide the quality and volume of seed needed for a large-scale restoration.

“Our role in phase one will be to take the records from the various treatment plants in the watershed, and see what analysis of alternatives is currently underway,” Apfelbaum told the group. “We want to find out other things as well, like if the village owns land within one mile of their plant, and what impacts flooding has had on the plant.”

Eastern Research Group’s website says that the company is dedicated to “helping their clients protect the environment, improve worker health and safety, ensuring the safety of food and drugs, planning sustainable facilities, and achieving other positive outcomes.”

The company’s clients include federal, regional, state and local governments and agencies, non-government organizations, foundations, academic institutions, corporations and businesses, and various domestic and international partnership programs.

“Our company brings experience to the project in looking at things from a life cycle perspective,” ERG’s Sam Arden told the group. “We will use non-monetary metrics to evaluate different options for management approaches.”