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Adaptive Management

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Find adaptive management and water quality trading projects around the state.


Resources are available to assist you in developing adaptive management and water quality trading plans and in modeling the impacts of management decisions on Wisconsin's surface waters.

Adaptive management (AM) is a compliance option that allows owners of point and nonpoint sources of phosphorus to work together to improve water quality and to meet water quality standards. Adaptive management recognizes that excess phosphorus in lakes and rivers is the result of a variety of activities and sources; both point and nonpoint source reductions are often needed to achieve water quality standards.


About adaptive management

Facilities that discharge phosphorus can work with landowners, municipalities and counties to target nonpoint sources (runoff) of phosphorus to minimize their overall fiscal outlays while achieving compliance with water quality-based criteria and improving water quality. The AM Technical Handbook [PDF] describes the process, including how to develop a successful AM strategy.

Benefits of adaptive management

For eligible participants, AM may be very beneficial. Below are a few positive aspects of using adaptive management to consider.

  • Permit compliance through AM may be economically preferable to other compliance options.
  • Point sources and partner nonpoint sources demonstrate commitment to their community and the environment by restoring local water resources.
  • Dischargers receive less restrictive interim phosphorus limits while they work with partners to improve water quality. These less restrictive phosphorus limits may become permanent if adaptive management is successful and phosphorus water quality standards are restored.
  • Adaptive management provides flexibility for permittees and partners to learn from each other and adapt with experience. The AM option can extend over a 20-year timeframe (up to four five-year permit terms). This time is provided so the permittee can install phosphorus reduction practices, create new partnerships and measure success.
  • Adaptive management may also address total suspended solids (TSS) wasteload allocations in watersheds with a federally approved total maximum daily load (TMDL) for TSS.

Adaptive management vs. water quality trading

Although similar, adaptive management differs from water quality trading. In both cases, point sources may take credit for phosphorus reductions in a watershed that leads to phosphorus standards compliance. While the practices for generating phosphorus reductions may be similar, these two compliance options have different permit requirements which affect the overall permit process and timing.

  • End goals: AM focuses on achieving phosphorus surface water quality criteria. WQ trading offsets phosphorus from a discharge to achieve compliance with a permit limit.
  • Monitoring: AM focuses on water quality improvements through in-stream monitoring. This is not required under WQ trading.
  • Timing: AM is a watershed project that can be implemented throughout the permit term (five years). Practices used to generate reductions through WQ trading must be established before the phosphorus limit takes effect.
  • Quantifying reductions: AM reductions are measured by monitoring the receiving water, not the effluent. Therefore, trade ratios sent a point source facility considering adaptive management. WQ trading requires trade ratios to quantify reductions that offset a permit limit.
  • Eligibility: AM and WQ trading have different eligibility requirements.


Eligibility requirements

A facility must meet the following criteria in order to be eligible for adaptive management.

  • The receiving water is exceeding the applicable phosphorus criteria.
  • Filtration or equivalent technology is required to meet proposed or new phosphorus limit.
  • Nonpoint sources contribute 50% or more of the total phosphorus entering the receiving water.

Determining eligiblity

The following steps will help determine a facility's eligiblity for adaptive management.

Step 1: Find in-stream phosphorus data

The DNR calculates phosphorus water quality based effluent limits (WQBELs) for each facility. Review data from DNR's water quality database to confirm this determination prior to permit reissuance.

Step 2: Determine nonpoint source contributions

The DNR has completed this calculation for most permitted municipal and industrial facilities with phosphorus monitoring using the GIS-based model called Pollutant Load Ratio Estimation Tool (PRESTO). Learn about the PRESTO model.

Step 3: Complete the eligibility form

Complete and submit the Watershed Adaptive Management Request (Form 3200-139) [PDF] to your local DNR wastewater engineer, specialist or adaptive management coordinator and begin developing an adaptive management plan.


Adaptive management plans

Adaptive management plans identify actions that will achieve compliance with applicable in-stream phosphorus criterion through verifiable reductions of phosphorus from point and nonpoint sources. One or multiple WPDES permitted facilities can be covered under the same adaptive management plan.

There are nine key components to develop a successful adaptive management plan:

  1. Identify partners;
  2. Describe the watershed and determine load reduction goals;
  3. Conduct a watershed inventory;
  4. Identify where reductions will occur;
  5. Describe management measures;
  6. Estimate load reductions expected within the permit term;
  7. Identify how you will measure success;
  8. Describe financial security for the project; and
  9. Provide an implementation schedule with milestones.

The AM Technical Handbook [PDF] provides details on developing a successful AM plan. The plan must be submitted to the DNR by the due date of preliminary alternatives evaluation in the phosphorus compliance schedule. All final department decisions are available on the WPDES permits on public notice page.

Tips for developing a plan

The following tips will help you develop an AM plan.

  • Seek out a variety of partners to help develop and implement adaptive management. This could include county land conservation departments, environmental and agricultural groups, lake associations, the DNR, etc.
  • Start early. Adaptive management is an option that builds new partnerships and tackles watershed concerns. Building effective partnerships and identifying opportunities can take time.
  • Prioritize management practices. Once on-the-ground practices have been identified try to prioritize them based on their proximity to the receiving water, time needed to establish or their likelihood for success.
  • Keep open communications. Every adaptive management plan will be unique and as a new compliance option it is important to keep communication open between permittees, adaptive management partners and regional DNR adaptive management coordinators.


Additional resources


These informational webinars explore implementing the phosphorus rules and include phosphorus discharge limits for WPDES permittees, compliance schedules, adaptive management and water quality trading. Consider viewing these short webinars if you are involved with WPDES permits.

Administrative rules
Fact sheets
Links to DNR webpages
Contact us

If you have questions, comments or feedback about phosphorus implementation, rule content or adaptive management and water quality trading please email us.