Protecting Wisconsin’s Water
Better Oversight of Development Is Necessary to Prevent Runoff Pollution

Executive Summary

From the Sugar River south of Madison to the Lake Michigan shoreline, the excess flow of runoff pollution into Wisconsin’s waterways has led to serious water quality problems, including impaired drinking water quality, degraded wildlife habitat and uncontrolled sewage overflows. These problems extend downstream, from contamination in the Great Lakes to the dead zone that forms every year at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

In 2002, the state took a major step toward solving these problems by adopting a set of the nation’s strongest stormwater regulations. The regulations set limits on runoff from roads and developed areas and require nutrient management plans for agricultural land.

However, developers are not fully complying with the law. To improve the health of Wisconsin’s waterways, the state should strengthen its oversight of development projects.  

Polluted runoff degrades thousands of streams, rivers and lakes in Wisconsin.

  • The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) identified runoff as a dominant source of pollution in over two-thirds of impaired river sections in the state and over 50 percent of impaired lakes in a 2006 assessment.

Development projects create runoff pollution both during construction and long term.

  • During construction, development clears land of vegetation, allowing rainwater to carry loose soil into nearby waterways. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a construction site of one acre can release between 20 and 150 tons of sediment per year.
  • Sediment is the most common symptom of water quality degradation in Wisconsin’s rivers and streams – contributing to the impairment of over 1,600 miles of rivers and streams and nearly 200,000 acres of inland lakes.
  • After development, new roads and buildings replace natural surfaces that formerly stored and cleaned runoff with hard, paved surfaces that divert water and pollution directly into creeks or into sewers.
  • As a result, runoff increases the variability of stream flow, eroding stream banks, impairing wildlife habitat, polluting drinking water, and contributing to flooding and sewer overflows.

Without better enforcement of runoff prevention rules, future growth in Wisconsin could exacerbate runoff pollution.

  • In the next 14 years, Wisconsin’s population is expected to increase by over half a million people, or by about 10 percent.
  • If development continues at even half the pace as in the past, the amount of built-up land in Wisconsin could increase by about 12 percent by 2020. To put that in perspective, imagine a construction site covering a plot of land 1.5 times the size of Milwaukee County, or nearly 250,000 acres.
  • Much of this construction is likely to occur in or around population centers. (See Figure ES-1.) Municipalities expected to grow by more than 2,500 people by 2020 – and that also contain waterways already impaired by sedimentation – include:
    • Milwaukee metropolitan area: Germantown, Mequon, Sussex, Menomonee Falls, Milwaukee, Waukesha, New Berlin, West Allis, Greenfield, Franklin, Oak Creek, South Milwaukee, Caledonia, Mount Pleasant and Salem.
    • Madison area: DeForest, Sun Prairie, Madison, Fitchburg, Watertown, and Janesville.
    • Green Bay area: Howard, Green Bay, Bellevue, DePere, Buchanan, Appleton, Menasha, Grand Chute, Greenville, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, and Manitowoc.
    • Central and Western Wisconsin: Plover, Onalaska, Eau Claire, and Hudson.

Developers are not fully complying with runoff prevention law.

  • Wisconsin’s runoff prevention rules require builders to reduce sediment runoff during construction by 80 percent at sites of one acre or larger. Builders must also design sites to prevent runoff after construction, reducing sediment runoff by 80 percent, cutting peak runoff discharge during storms, creating protective buffer areas between developments and waterways, and implementing practices that allow water to infiltrate into the ground rather than directing it off the site.
  • However, developers are not complying with the rules. A DNR official has estimated 100 percent non-compliance in at least one region of the state. Non-compliance is widespread across Wisconsin, due to flaws in the enforcement of the rules.
  • The Department of Commerce, which oversees “commercial” construction sites (an estimated 85 percent of all sites), has weak enforcement practices compared to DNR, allowing developers to skip required runoff prevention measures. Proposed Commerce runoff rules, scheduled to go into effect in April 2007, do not correct the situation. For example, under the proposed rules:
    • Developers are not required to submit specific construction site or runoff control plans to the Department of Commerce. As a result, the department is unable to conduct even basic reviews of commercial construction sites before construction begins.
    • Applicants will be granted automatic permit coverage 7 days after submitting a permit application – without adequate time for review.
    • Commerce will charge a permit fee of only $25 for all applicants, regardless of the size of the construction project – far less than would be necessary to fund a meaningful oversight program.
    • Commerce is not required to share information with DNR on a timely basis. As a result, DNR does not know even the location of a majority of the construction sites it has ultimate authority over – much less information about violations that require enforcement action.
  • The difference in enforcement approaches between DNR and Commerce is readily apparent. While DNR has referred at least 16 violations of construction-site stormwater rules to the Department of Justice for enforcement in the last two years, the Department of Commerce has not referred any since it began monitoring commercial sites in 1994.

To prevent growth from exacerbating runoff pollution, Wisconsin should improve oversight of development projects.

  • The state should consolidate all construction site stormwater regulation back within the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the agency with the legal authority and expertise to enforce the Clean Water Act in Wisconsin.
  • In the event that Commerce continues to oversee commercial construction sites, it should ensure that all developers submit a DNR-approved application, including enough detailed information about proposed projects to evaluate their compliance with Wisconsin’s runoff prevention law. Projects should not be automatically approved without adequate review.
  • Additionally, Commerce should share permit applications with DNR on a frequent and timely basis, and make them available to the public over the Internet. Commerce should also share information about site monitoring and any identified violations to enable DNR enforcement action.
  • Permit fees (at either agency) should be set at a level to ensure adequate funding and staff for project review, inspection and enforcement action. Based on DNR estimates of staff requirements for optimal construction site permitting and enforcement, the average stormwater permit application should be accompanied by a fee in the range of $600, tied to inflation.
  • Both agencies should emphasize low-impact development techniques, such as minimizing the amount of impervious surface on a site, as simple and effective approaches to achieving the long-term stormwater reduction goals laid out in Wisconsin law.