The Yahara River runs through us, our community, and our lakes, and its watershed needs our help. Since 2005 and local historian David Mollenhoff’s charge to the North American Lake Management Society’s international symposium in Madison, concern about the quality of lakes and waters in Madison and Dane County catalyzed a new wave of responsive action. The broad goals of this effort are cleaner, clearer water throughout the watershed, and safe and healthy beaches. There is strong evidence that these goals can be achieved in ways that support the overall economic viability and quality of life in Dane County, including a viable and sustainable agricultural industry and business sector.
In 2008, a partnership called Yahara CLEAN (Capital Lakes Environmental Assessment and Needs) was forged between the City of Madison, Dane County, and the State Departments of Natural Resources (DNR) and Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). This effort was bolstered by funding from the agency partners to engage the community and establish clear and achievable goals and an implementation plan for cleaning the lakes, and a grant from the Madison Community Foundation to partner in developing a community vision to guide long-term strategies. The result of this combined effort was broad collaboration and involvement from scientific and technical experts, agency staff, and many local lake organizations, farmers, business leaders, policymakers and concerned individuals.
The partners assessed and modeled major sources of sediments, nutrients, and beach bacteria, and proposed solutions to remediate those sources. They engaged hundreds of area residents and experts to create a vision for the lakes and to provide input on the improvement actions being contemplated. They assessed causes of bacterial outbreaks at beaches. They engaged lake scientists at the DNR and the University of Wisconsin Center for Limnology to assess lake response to phosphorus reduction actions in the watershed. They established clear and achievable goals and an implementation plan for achieving a 50% reduction in phosphorus runoff. The Yahara Lakes Legacy Partnership, including significant contributions from Clean Wisconsin and Gathering Waters Conservancy, supported the Yahara CLEAN partners as they developed their plan of action.
In September 2010, the Yahara CLEAN partnership released its report, A CLEAN Future for the Yahara Lakes: Solutions for Tomorrow, Starting Today. The report identified 70 actions to help clean up the lakes. The actions include recommendations for reducing sediment and nutrient input into the lakes from rural areas and farmlands and urban areas, and for improving beach water quality through stormwater management and waterfowl control measures.
The report also included the following vision for the lakes that emerged from the partners’ public engagement:
The Yahara River watershed is a beloved asset to our communities. We are proud of the chain of beautiful, clean, and healthy lakes. There is widespread recognition of the lakes’ contributions to our region’s economy and quality of life. The lakes provide benefits that outweigh the investment required to keep them clean and healthy. Creative partnerships among urban and rural dwellers, farmers and other business people, and the private and public sectors generate lasting results as we tackle shared challenges across the watershed.
As part of Yahara CLEAN, the partners used models and several assessment tools to distill extensive research and target the problems. Several state-of-the art models were used to assess nutrient and sediment loadings. In combination, these models provided a sophisticated picture of the sources of the problem, concentrations, and locations. They shaped strategies for intervention, provided insights into project costs, and have set the stage for taking action.
For example, we now know that the highest concentrations of the phosphorus in the watershed are coming from specific drainages northwest of Lakes Mendota, and in the upper Waubesa and Kegonsa watersheds. This tells us where to target the reduction efforts for biggest impacts. We also know that the benefits of reducing inputs into Lake Mendota will cascade throughout the full chain of lakes downstream. Thus, improving Lake Mendota‘s source-water quality is one of the linchpins in cleaning up the whole system.
For beaches, analyses included water testing and site analysis, including slope, sand characteristics, proximity to storm drains, visitor facilities, presence of geese and other wildlife, and other factors. This revealed the need for a multi-pronged approach, customized to the particular beach.
Clean Lakes Alliance and the Yahara CLEAN Strategic Action Plan
Moving forward from their intensive efforts in 2008-2010, the signatory agencies for Yahara CLEAN partnered with groups like the Clean Lakes Alliance to further engage the community and develop a focused plan to clean the lakes through phosphorus reduction. The Clean Lakes Alliance, after two additional years of work, released the Yahara CLEAN Strategic Action Plan (download PDF) in November 2012.
The Yahara CLEAN Strategic Action Plan includes a list of 14 actions, with phosphorus reductions calculated for each action based on models, assumptions, and more than 30 years of monitoring data. The combination of actions is tailored for each lake in the Yahara River chain and focuses on a 50% reduction in the direct drainage sources of phosphorus to each lake. The actions are further divided into rural and urban actions. The urban actions account for 29% of the phosphorus reduction and rural actions account for 71%. The split between urban and rural actions reflects the makeup of the land that drains into the lakes. According to the Watershed-Wide SWAT Model produced by Montgomery Associates as part of the Yahara CLEAN report, 27% of the land is urban and 73% is rural. A list of the 14 actions follows.
Improve leaf management
Improve control of construction erosion
Maintain permitted stormwater facilities
Stabilize urban waterway banks
Reduce total suspended solids in municipal stormwater
Improve cropping, tillage, and in-field practices
Build community digesters
Remove additional phosphorus at digesters
Manage manure and nutrients
Stabilize rural waterway banks
Dredge drainage ditches
Relocate or cover livestock facilities
Harvest wetland plants
Promote restoration of wetlands
The Yahara WINS watershed adaptive management pilot project led by Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is a critical component of the Strategic Action Plan. Yahara WINS is pioneering a new regulatory approach to address phosphorus, in which agricultural producers, municipalities, and MMSD work together in a cost-effective way to reduce phosphorus in the watershed.
These are exciting times for the Yahara watershed, with specific plans, funding, and community support coming together to improve the waters so beloved by our community.
This 2012 Yahara CLEAN Strategic Action Plan focuses on phosphorus reduction. The 2010 A CLEAN Future for the Yahara Lakes: Solutions for Tomorrow, Starting Today report recommended a broader suite of actions to reduce sediment runoff and beach bacteria that were not included in the 2012 Strategic Action Plan.
Going forward, the Yahara watershed community will still need to reduce beach bacteria and sediment, as well invasive species and other challenges, ideally in a comprehensive watershed plan.
As all of these Yahara watershed improvement actions are implemented, David Mollenhoff has posed another challenge for us. At the November 2012 North American Lake Management Society international meeting held in Madison, Mollenhoff posed five success criteria for the implementation stage:
1. Decide if this plan is the optimal solution.
Here’s a good test: Will this plan do the most good for the most people for the longest time with the fewest resources? If it isn’t, we need to modify it. If it is, we need to get behind it. Today’s program is designed to help you make informed decisions about the details of the plan, the science behind it, the funding to pay for it, and the structure of the leadership system. I urge you to use this day and your own due diligence to evaluate this plan.
2. Scrutinize the leadership structure for effectiveness and sustainability.
To succeed, we must achieve unprecedented cooperation among governments, governmental agencies, and private organizations. How in the world, we must ask, can we make sure that everyone is pulling on the same rope in the same direction all of the time?
I exhort you to scrutinize the organizational structure to make sure it has the capacity and authority to inspire and sustain this complex vision. This will surely require thoughtful written agreements amongst the parties—agreements that take organizational strengths into account and specify what organizations should take what actions for what tasks under what circumstances.
3. Be eternally vigilant.
Thomas Jefferson said, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance." The price of clean lakes will also require eternal vigilance. And for good reasons. This complicated crusade can fail in a myriad of ways. For example, mayors can include resources in an executive budget boards of estimates can delete them. Global warming and invasive species can complicate plans. You get the idea.
4. Be patient
We Americans are an impatient people. We want progress tomorrow. But cleaning up the lakes will require decades, not days. Do we have the patience to succeed? We must remind ourselves and tell others that cleaning up our waters will take time.
5. Demand transparency, robust participation, and due process
We need transparency because credibility is essential. We need robust participation because success requires the contributions of a mosaic of organizations. And we need due process to resolve issues as they come up during implementation.
With your help, we can achieve these goals and be successful in cleaning up the Yahara lakes.