Good news for Madison lakes, but climate change could offset it
A continued drop in phosphorus loads has spelled good news for the Yahara chain of lakes in recent years, which could someday more than double the number of summer days when the lakes are clear and free of algae blooms.
But threatening that goal, according to a report released Wednesday by the Clean Lakes Alliance, are rainfall events that are more frequent and intense, paired with warmer winters that lead to greater runoff and phosphorus getting into the system.
The weather patterns have the Clean Lakes Alliance, elected officials, environmentalists and community leaders hoping to double down on their efforts to further protect the 385-square-mile watershed that feeds major lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa.
“Long-term climatological data show a region that is getting wetter and warmer,” the report states. “Increasing rainfall volume and intensity represent an unwelcome trend that can negatively affect the performance of many conservation practices.”
While past reports have looked back on what has happened within the watershed, the latest report, the centerpiece of the Clean Lakes Alliance’s Greater Madison Lake Guide, also included a look forward at trends in five different areas.
Weather and climate is trending poorly, while the phosphorus balance in the system and land conservation practices are trending well. Meanwhile, phosphorus delivery to the lakes and in-lake water quality responses are classified as trending fair or mixed.
A record crowd of more than 800 people gathered Wednesday morning in the 40,000-square-foot Exhibition Hall at Monona Terrace to take in the event and hear from speakers that included members of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and James Tye, who founded the Clean Lakes Alliance in 2010 and has built the organization into a major advocate promoting healthy lakes.
“The community is ready to take even bolder actions for the lakes,” Tye said. “Our opportunity is to double down. Do things at a faster pace to help protect the lakes.”
One of those key initiatives is working with Dane County to build a community manure digester in the watershed’s northern sector. The county already has earmarked $3 million for land and a feasibility study for the project that officials hope could be up and running within the next five years. The digester would be designed to help reduce the spread of manure on agricultural land, one of the leading contributors to phosphorus loads, along with lawn fertilizers in urban areas.
“That’s the big bold idea that we need to do, and we need to do it as a community,” Tye said.
The digester would add to other conservation efforts in that area that have included working with cities and villages to create stormwater retention ponds so sediment settles and less phosphorus enters the lakes. Farmers are also being encouraged to convert some of their land to prairie or perennial grasses or have it be used for rotational grazing.
In 2019, the county spent $10 million to purchase the 160-acre Acker farm adjacent to Pheasant Branch Conservancy. Work is underway to convert the property to prairie, which will have the added benefit of absorbing more rainwater that would otherwise run off into Lake Mendota.
“What we know is that we need something on a much broader scale,” Parisi said of the proposed digester. “It would be something available to all farmers in the North Mendota Watershed, not just large farmers but small farmers, too, who might not be able to do some of things on their own. It would help us deeply.”
The Clean Lakes Alliance in 2022 also played an active role in monitoring and helping to keep invasive species out of the lakes.
For the 11th year, it coordinated a water monitoring program that used 96 volunteers to cover 87 nearshore and seven offshore locations to help identify blue-green blooms, which can lead to beach closures. Compared to 2021, all lakes except Lake Kegonsa, located at the southern end of the chain, showed improvement in water clarity, according to the report.
Beach closures in 2022 dropped to 91 compared to a record 267 in 2021. The Clean Lakes Alliance also assisted in the state Department of Natural Resources’ Clean Boats, Clean Water program by hiring three watercraft inspectors who worked at Marshall Park and Warner Park boat landings on Lake Mendota and at Olbrich and Olin parks on Lake Monona. Dane County Land and Water Resources staffed boat launches at Babcock Park on Lake Waubesa and at Fish Camp on Lake Kegonsa.
Wednesday’s breakfast also highlighted the Ho-Chunk Nation, whose people lived here and paddled and fished the lakes thousands of years before Eben and Roseline Peck, considered Madison’s first white settlers, built a cabin in what is now Madison’s Downtown in 1837.
Jon Greendeer, president elect of the Ho-Chunk Nation, spoke of the unique nature of the Madison chain of lakes, where two ancient dugout canoes have been found since 2021. His peoples’ lands are now largely populated by non-Indigenous people, who also need to take responsibility for the land and lakes.
“We are all part of the ecosystem around us,” Greendeer said. “We don’t own the planet. We have to be humbled and use it with respect.”
Samantha Skenadore, who is also a member of the Oneida Nation, a federal Indian and tribal law attorney for Quarles and an expert in water rights litigation, spoke of the plan to reimagine the Lake Monona shoreline along John Nolen Drive. She has an affinity for the mounds built by her ancestors that surround the lakes, though many have been destroyed.
“It’s that medicine in the ground here in Dejope (the name given to the Madison area by its original Ho-Chunk inhabitants) that keeps us and binds us all together,” Skenadore told the crowd. “And that very much pertains to the water.”