Protecting Madison’s Best Assets

Photo by Jim Lorman

It’s quite apparent we love our lakes. Visit Madison in the summer and you’ll find paddleboarders exploring Lake Wingra, rowers in Lake Monona, and, of course, crowds of people relaxing with pitchers of beer and a view of Lake Mendota on the Memorial Union Terrace. In the winter, Madisonians’ enthusiasm for the lakes is undeterred by the freezing temperatures: ice fishers dot Monona Bay, skaters fill the Vilas Park lagoon, and if it’s cold enough, walkers brave the long trek across a frozen Lake Mendota.

When James Tye co-founded the Clean Lakes Alliance in 2010, he aimed to bring together people who share a passion for the lakes. The organization promotes collaboration between individuals, businesses, farmers, and government. Its short-term goal is to reduce phosphorous inflow to the lakes by 50% by year 2025, and in 2012, it unveiled a 14-point action plan to get there. The group also has a long-term goal.

“Our long-term goal is that everybody realizes the lakes are our number one asset,” says James, now the executive director. That’s a big statement for a community that is the state capital, has a respected university, a thriving business scene, and destinations like State Street and the Monona Terrace. “But all those things were actually built here because of the lakes,” explains James.

The Madison area lakes are part of the Yahara River Watershed. A watershed is the area of land, streams, and rivers that ultimately drains into a body or bodies of water. The Yahara River Watershed includes Lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, Kegonsa, and Wingra, as well as the land spanning several counties surrounding these lakes. Anything that hits the ground within these boundaries can end up in the lakes.

The Clean Lakes Alliance’s strategic action plan focuses on reducing the amount of phosphorous that reaches the lakes. Phosphorous leads to the growth of blue-green algae, a type of bacteria that reduces oxygen, harms fish, and clouds water. Phosphorous and other harmful substances drain into the lake via runoff from farms and storm sewers. The faster the water moves, the less time there is for impurities to be removed by settling into the ground naturally or through filtering practices. The action plan focuses on what farmers, municipalities, and individuals can do.

The Clean Lakes Alliance partners with local farmers to help them adopt farming practices that limit soil disturbance and, therefore, reduce the amount of phosphorous carried into the lakes. These can include planting cover crops during winter, performing field tillage, and digging drainage ditches. An added benefit of these practices is that area farmers retain more of their high-quality, fertile soil.

“They’re not only trying to protect lakes, they also want to be able to pass on their farms to the next generation, and the generation after that. To do that, they have to change their conservation practices in order to keep the soil on the land,” says James.

The plan calls for individuals to focus on keeping yard waste such as leaves and grass clippings, which foster algae growth, away from storm sewers. Homeowners should also consider building rain gardens, which can be an effective and attractive way to slow water’s passage and encourage natural filtration.

“Consider these changes not only at your residence, but also at your workplace, your school, or your place of worship,” James suggests.

Photo by Jim Lorman

Jim Lorman, a professor at Edgewood College and the director of Edgewood’s Sustainability Leadership Program, has made a career of studying sustainability and facilitating collaboration. Jim helped found Friends of Lake Wingra several years ago when he realized that no one was coordinating management of the lake near his office at a grassroots level. He also serves as a member of the Clean Lakes Alliance’s community board.

Jim stresses the importance of individual action. Friends of Lake Wingra and other local Friends groups have discussed the idea of designating “block captains,” neighbors who are informed on best practices for the lakes and who monitor and serve as resources for
their areas.

Altering urban systems to benefit the lakes is more challenging. Existing infrastructures in developed neighborhoods offer limited space to add lake-friendly features such as filtration plants, and changes such as rerouting storm sewers are costly. Ideally, sustainable features are incorporated during the planning phase of construction or redevelopment projects. The updated parking lot near Metcalfe’s grocery store in Hilldale Mall features pervious asphalt and drainage ditches, both of which pace the flow of water and help prevent trash and sediment from reaching the lakes.

Some of Jim’s graduate students are working on a sustainable street reconstruction plan for Monroe Street, which is scheduled to be redone in 2017. The students incorporated features like rain gardens and greenspace into their design in place of drainpipes, which direct water toward the lakes too quickly. They also detailed guidelines for limiting erosion during construction. They hope some of their ideas will come to fruition.

“Although the costs can be higher initially, we won’t have to replace pipes, and we’ll get other benefits: greenspace, walkability, improved business by slowing traffic down a bit,” says Jim. “It’s all part of ecological urban design, which seeks to make urban environments more livable, walkable, less reliant on cars, less energy-intensive, and at the same time provide opportunities for better water filtration and cleaner lakes.” The project illustrates the comprehensive view of sustainability that Jim encourages his students to adopt.

“If you look at things as completely separate, if you look at the lakes as completely separate from transportation or energy, you’re not going to come up with these solutions. That’s, to me, the real challenge,” Jim says.

The Clean Lakes Alliance’s strategic action plan set the goal of a 50% reduction in phosphorous-loading levels by 2025. The Clean Lakes Alliance will publish 2014 results (not available at press time) in spring 2015. During 2013, 11% less phosphorous reached the lakes. Though the 2013 results are promising, maintaining momentum will be key.

“This goal is not like raising money for a one-time project,” says James, “It is harder because you have to compound work. You must set things in motion and keep those moving while adding more.”

The task requires engaging and coordinating several groups, including individual citizens, nonprofits, corporations, government agencies, and field experts such as Jim. The more people are informed and cheering for the lakes, the more progress James believes we will see.

On Jim’s mind is equity. Despite the progress, he notices that some groups remain underrepresented in current conversations. Many people depend on fishing in our lakes to survive, and many depend on using the beaches to cool off over the summer.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources advises people to limit how many fish they eat from the lakes due to mercury and PCB contamination, and the beaches often close due to high bacteria levels.

As a community, we could consider expanding our goals beyond phosphorous reduction, says Jim. “We should be able to eat the fish and not worry about health. We should be able to swim in the water all the time without getting sick.”

In the coming year, James hopes to certify more farms and get more individuals and companies involved through education, volunteer opportunities, and support. Both James and Jim stress the meaningful impact individuals can have by implementing some of the strategies that we already know are effective: not using fertilizers, reducing salt use, prioritizing leaf removal, and adding a rain garden on the terrace.

“This is my take generally on sustainability as a whole—we basically know what we need to do, we’re just not doing it,” says Jim.

For more information on the Clean Lakes Alliance, visit For more information on the Friends of Lake Wingra, visit .

Cara Lombardo is a CPA and a writer whose father taught her from a young age to keep grass clippings away from the storm sewer