During an event last week to mark the opening of a new facility at the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, environmental advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., spoke about the importance of protecting our water for the sake of future generations.
"We need to clean up after ourselves so our children don't have to clean up after us," he said.
Kennedy, an environmental attorney and founder of the Water Keepers Alliance, is a board member of Ostara, the Canadian company that came up with the system that was just installed in Madison.
It takes phosphorus and nitrogen out of wastewater and produces a fertilizer pellet that is only activated when a plant needs it. (See related story.)
Kennedy gave the keynote speech during an event to mark the opening of the facility in Madison.
When he began his crusade for clean water 30 years ago, Kennedy said the target of many of his lawsuits were sewage treatment plants for their practice of releasing untreated sewage into water systems.
When this untreated sewage enters rivers, streams and lakes it fertilizes that water making algae grow. When that algae dies it is devoured by bacteria and the process robs the water of oxygen.
"Algae in the water is not a victimless crime. It hurts everybody."
At one time Kennedy says he had the distinction of having sued more sewage treatment plants than anybody else in North America.
He realized the impact the crusade for clean water was having on communities when the civic leaders in Newberg, NY told him they had to choose between the cost of the wastewater treatment plant and the local football program.
The process to remove phosphorus from their wastewater was going to cost so much it was forcing the cancellation of football for the kids.
"I believe that what we do is about communities and I knew then that phosphorus had a value."
Mining it from open pits in places like Florida and Australia and then shipping it across the country and the world to use as a fertilizer seems like an unsustainable situation to him, he said.
An elegant solution to both problems is the one that has been installed in Madison and in six other municipal wastewater treatment plants to remove phosphorus and produce a marketable product.
The district, he said, will save money on its phosphorus removal and will make money. He predicted a seven-year payback on their initial investment.
"This district has demonstrated a willingness to take risks and try new things."
Kennedy said that with 43,000 river miles in Wisconsin, doing things like cleaning up the wastewater help "create a community for our children."
He branded as a "false choice" the idea mentioned by some politicians that good environmental policy cannot coexist with good economic policy.
Good environmental policies preserve the assets of our communities, he added.
"We should not treat it as if it's a business in liquidation – with a pollution-based cash flow. In that model our children would pay for our joy ride.
"Environmental injury is deficit spending," he added.
Kennedy, who said he has a fishing license for every state and province of Canada, said the tourism industry in Wisconsin related to fishing is worth $2.3 billion to the state.
In addition, the ability to go to the waters and catch fish has been a traditional way for people to feed themselves in tough times throughout the history of this country; the waterways and fisheries belong to the people of the state.
"When somebody puts something in that water that doesn't belong there, it's an act of theft. This is ancient law going back to Roman times.
"We can live off the interest, but we can't touch the capital. That belongs to our children."
Kennedy said he found it inspiring to see the personal commitment of the men and women who work at the wastewater treatment plant and the pride they have in the facility.
The Nine Springs water treatment plant on Madison's south side handles sewage from 350,000 people within a 185-square-mile area. It is Madison's only wastewater treatment plant.
Wastewater comes into the facility from large and small municipalities all over Dane County and treats 40 million gallons of wastewater per day.