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Lake experts say it's important that we start in earnest to clean up the water
Sunday, August 17, 2003

Wisconsin State Journal, Lesley Rogers

It's decision time for people dealing with Dane County [Wisconsin] lakes, which are plagued with weeds, dangerous bacteria and invasive species. Whatever choices are made now will result in either cleaner or more polluted lakes in 20 years.

"We're at a critical decision point," said Steve Carpenter, a limnology professor at UW-Madison. "If we keep going this way, things will get worse."

Scientists know what needs to be done to clean the troubled Yahara lakes system, which define Dane County culturally, economically and aesthetically.

But they say implementing solutions are up to government officials and most importantly, Dane County residents and lake users.

Finding solutions can be challenging when so many individual groups oversee the lakes, said Tim Mulholland, a former Department of Natural Resources employee. The DNR, Dane County, the city of Madison, UW-Madison scientists and various citizen groups are all involved in lake issues. Mulholland is on a mission to create an umbrella organization to work with the factions to improve the "big picture" of the lakes.

He said it would be different from the citizen and government member Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission, which advises the County Board on lake issues.

"Government is limited," Mulholland said. "People need to be creative and come up with some wonderful solutions we haven't even imagined yet."

While there are detailed county plans outlining the future of roads, bike paths and parks, there's no recent countywide long-range plan for Dane County's waters.

That's because each agency and group has plans and research in smaller aspects of lake issues. There are water quality plans from the county and watershed plans from the state.

"This is a situation where nobody has sole responsibility," said Bill Lane, interim director of the Dane County Regional Planning Commission.

Mulholland said an umbrella organization could outline goals for all five Yahara lakes - Mendota, Monona, Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa. "As an environmental scientist, I see the lakes are degrading and decaying," Mulholland said. "If we work collaboratively, we can make changes. There are things we can all do better." Solutions to clean the lakes aren't hard to find, Carpenter said.

"Scientifically, we know exactly what the problem is and we know how to fix it," Carpenter said. "It's not a science problem, it's a political problem."

Carpenter's three-step process for cleaner lakes:

* Go after the big sources of phosphorus and reduce the runoff into lakes by at least one-half to three-fourths.

"Then, be patient," he said. "It takes six and a half years to flush Lake Mendota. It needs to be flushed three times to be clean."

Phosphorus, an essential element for plant life, feeds weed growth. Phosphorus is abundant in areas of new construction. Farmers use it on crops, as do homeowners to fertilize their lawns.

By cleaning Lake Mendota, the lakes downstream become cleaner.

"If everyone stopped using phosphorus, there would be significant improvement in 10 to 20 years," he said.

* Stop invasive and exotic species that could change the ecosystem.

Enforce the requirement to wash boats at landings and educate the public about harmful species, such as zebra mussels.

* Reduce fishing catches.

Work with the angling community to end the over-harvesting of fish, which throws off the ecosystem. Consider catch-and-release policies with some of the game fish, Carpenter said.

The county is working on some solutions. A phaseout of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus is in the works. The county enacted a strict storm-water runoff ordinance. Weed-cutting barges harvest weeds.

But there's more work to be done, said Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk.

"We have to do better," Falk said. "I think people have a wonderful love affair with our lakes and our streams. It hurts to see them deteriorate."

The weeds are a messy political issue.

Sal Troia, president of the Yahara Lakes Association and a Lake Mendota resident, said the county needs to continue increasing funding for its weed-cutting program. Extra money was included in the county's budget this year for weed cutting, but residents aren't happy with the results.

Scientists disagree if lake weeds are worse or better this year.

"This year everybody's upset by the weeds. In the 1960s, it was just as bad or worse," said John Magnuson, a member of the Lakes and Watershed Commission and former director of the UW-Madison Center for Limnology.

But lake-shore homeowners say there's no question. "The weeds are a lot worse this year," Troia said. "The county's not doing enough."

Lake weeds grow because water runoff pouring into the lakes carries weed-feeding nutrients from lawns, construction sites and farms. Part of the perception of increased weed growth might be that the non-native Eurasian water milfoil, which grows above the surface, is more visible.

"I'm not going to see the time when the lakes are really clean again, because it's a long-term project," Troia said. "I hope my grandkids will see those days." Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said the city is considering expanding its street sweeping to keep more debris and leaves from entering the lakes. In the spring through summer, the city sweeps the streets once a month. On the near East Side, the city has been sweeping once a week as part of a pilot program.

"It's very important to the quality of the lakes to keep the streets cleaner," Cieslewicz said. The once-a-week street sweeping is likely to be expanded to include the Southwest Side, he said. The funding will come from the storm-water utility fee on property owners' water bills.

All homeowners can take simple steps to help. Lake-front property owners should rake shallow lake weeds that the weed cutters can't reach, Magnuson said. "People need to do as good a job as possible on the piece of property they're responsible for," Magnuson said. "People need to be stewards of the land." To stop the spread of exotic species, the county might even consider restricting boats to certain lakes or require certification that boats are "zebra-mussel free," Magnuson said.

Zebra mussels were found in Lake Monona two years ago. The aggressive mollusks form dense clusters and attach to hard surfaces, clogging cooling systems of boats. They decrease the oxygen that fish and other water life need.

A new exotic "Cylindro" (technically called cylindrospermopsis raciborskii), is a native of Brazil. It's a potentially toxic blue-green algae that was found in lakes Wingra and Monona. It can be dangerous to people and pets drinking large amounts of lake water.

Magnuson said studies are being done to see if it's widely spread and if the concentrations are high enough to be a problem.

Susan Tesarik, education director for the Wisconsin Association of Lakes, a Madison-based, nonprofit lake advocacy group, said she's worried the government won't put money into improving the lakes.

"Money's tight," Tesarik said. "I'm scared we're not going to see much in terms of new funds and programs."

Falk said new programs are unlikely any time soon. But she notes that many of the solutions aren't costly, such as the phosphorus ban.

Sup. Bill Graf, Monona, a member of the Lakes and Watershed Commission, said he wants to make sure lake issues are a priority, even in tough budget times. "We've made progress in improving the lakes," Graf said. "But a lot more needs to be done. The lakes are really central to Dane County's identity and economy."

Ken Potter, a UW-Madison engineering professor, said the future of the lakes centers on development. He said the county needs stricter guidelines to control runoff. As Dane County becomes more urban, more open spaces are paved over, so rain water and melting snow run into the lakes and streams instead of seeping into the ground.

"Now we're getting a much greater proportion of direct runoff," Potter said. That direct runoff causes flooding problems and means unfiltered water enters the lakes and streams, Potter said.

Fritz Kroncke, who supervises Madison beaches, said he's worried about the beach closings because of bacteria. Kroncke spent his childhood swimming in Madison's lakes in the 1950s. But Kroncke's three children haven't grown up with the lakes. "We belong to a swimming pool," he said.

A dangerous strain of E. coli found in Lake Wingra has Kroncke and other city officials worried. Vilas Beach, on the Lake Wingra shore, attracts about 25,000 people a year, he said.

While health officials are still testing and haven't found the source of the problem, Kroncke suspects the large flocks of geese and ducks that nest and live along the beach cause bacteria problems.

The city is even considering bringing in a trained dog to help scare the bird population away.

"It's hard for me to just sit and watch this gradual decay of the waters," Kroncke said.

 

Kivu Refugees

 

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