It has been said that inspiration comes from the most unexpected places. When it comes to the realm of state natural resource management, it seems like many Wisconsinites were likely big early ’90s pop music fans and drew inspiration from Paula Abdul’s classic “Opposites Attract.” Wisconsin’s close ties to its natural environment have led it to develop a unique persona where granola-munching tree-huggers and “Real American” outdoorsmen often find themselves coming together to preserve the natural Wisconsin they all love.
That Wisconsin spirit of shared environmental responsibility and love of catchy pop tunes will need to manifest itself here in the Yahara lakes region if the lakes are to be cured of their various ailments. Those trying their healing hands will not be doctors, but rather a disparate group of planners, scientists, farmers and regular folks who are attracted together to do their best Doogie Houser, M.D., on the lakes.
It is no secret to the residents of Dane County that the Yahara lakes of Mendota, Menona, Waubesa, Wingra and Kegonsa are not doing well. One does not need to be a water chemist to know that the quality of the water in the lakes is poor — a fact displayed by algae blooms in Lake Mendota over the past several summers. Lake Mendota helps define the campus and the city, so it is no surprise such visible signs of trouble have caused an upwelling of public support for saving the lakes.
The diagnosis of the lakes’ ailment is a process called eutrophication, or in non-nerdspeak, lots of growing algae. Public enemy No. 1 in this process is the element phosphorus and its compounds. During the Chemistry 101 days, phosphorus, or “P” as the kids of the Periodic Table call it, seemed fairly innocuous compared to other elements such as uranium and plutonium.
Phosphorus is not capable of destroying human society via atomic fission, but it does serve as the primary nutrient in freshwater lakes. Think of it as the free pizza of the water chemistry world. Just as free pizza causes attendance at student organization meetings to flourish, phosphorus nourishes algae and causes it to grow like crazy in the lakes where it accumulates.
The primary source of phosphorus in the Yahara lakes watershed is kind of a crappy subject. Literally. Phosphorus is a major component of both human and animal shit. Traditionally, both human waste, in the form of wastewater discharged into streams, and animal waste, in the form of manure spread on fields as fertilizer, were substantial sources of the phosphorus that eventually reached the lakes.
However, even back before Abdul’s career was marginally respectable, the Environmental Protection Agency put regulations on wastewater discharges into place, and quite shockingly for an action of the United States government, they were very successful. Currently, 75 to 80 percent of the phosphorus that reaches the lakes comes from agricultural runoff. With wastewater discharges mostly under control, the solution to saving the lakes is going to have to heavily involve the agricultural community.
When the ailing Yahara lakes first entered the public conscience, there was a fair amount of finger-pointing in all directions. However, through events such as the Dane County Farmers Market, Madison residents are building a connection with local agriculture and are beginning to understand that working with the farmers to find a way to manage their manure is a much better solution than continuing to bicker and argue about their poo.
Cooperation between farmers and urban areas is important because the widespread challenges of reducing phosphorus runoff from the Yahara region’s farm fields will be about as easy as a differential equations exam. Controlling wastewater discharge from one location is pretty easy, but controlling runoff from acres of farmland is a whole different beast. Further complicating the engineering realities are economic realities: Money is already tight for farmers and local governments in the effort to implement practices that would help control their phosphorus runoff.
If the lakes were located in an un-environmental and “arrogant” state such as my home state of Illinois, the Yahara lakes would be in even deeper shit, but I feel that if Wisconsinites can make wearing cheeseheads the pinnacle of fashion, then they definitely can find a way to bring the Yahara lakes back to life.
The Dane County Department of Lakes and Watersheds will soon be beginning work on the Yahara Lakes Legacy Partnership, which is a group that will bring rural, urban and government folks together to defeat the evil monster phosphorus-zilla. Most likely due to being stuck in an early 1990s time warp — I’ve heard that “Casual Friday” at the WDNR is actually “Zubaz Pants and Slap Bracelet Friday” — Wisconsinites in the Yahara lakes watershed have an opportunity to demonstrate what can be accomplished when opposites attract.
Zachary Schuster ([email protected]) is a graduate student studying water resources engineering.