The Environmental Protection Agency has approved a plan from two Republican Wisconsin state lawmakers that allows companies to pay to delay compliance with strict phosphorous pollution standards.

Under the plan, polluters such as paper and cheese manufacturers and water utilities can apply to the Department of Natural Resources for a variance permit that allows them to postpone compliance for 10 years. In exchange, they will have to pay fees to fund county projects that reduce runoff. Sen. Robert Cowles of Green Bay said these investments could be more effective at reducing phosphorous levels than forcing companies to make costly repairs or install water filtration systems.

Cowles said he wasn't convinced that upgrades at the facilities would make that much difference in phosphorous levels.

"For them to be forced to spend a lot of money on something that's not going to benefit society, it's just not right," Cowles said.

Cowles and Rep. Amy Loudenbeck of Clinton proposed the plan in 2014. The Legislature passed the proposal but it needed EPA approval since it falls under the federal Clean Water Act. Cowles said he was disappointed the EPA took three years to approve the measure. He said he didn't think Donald Trump's new administration prompted the approval.

Todd Ambs, who led the DNR's water division for seven years ending in 2010 and now works for a water nonprofit, said the state's phosphorous standards already allow companies alternatives if they are unable to meet the standards. He said the Republicans' plan gives them even more leniency.

"The bottom line is we will have an even slower path to addressing what is the number one water problem in the state of Wisconsin," Ambs said.

The Wisconsin DNR adopted some of the strictest phosphorous standards in the country in 2010, leading many companies to ask legislators to loosen the regulations.