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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Can we save Madison's lakes? A new effort raises hope for rapid change
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Credit:John McLaughlin

If it were simple and cheap to clean up Madison's lakes we would have done it by now. Unfortunately, the answers are complex, uncertain and costly.

But there is a big new wave of activity washing up on the shores of the Yahara lakes, and it is raising hope for relatively rapid and noticeable progress.

The Clean Lakes Alliance is a broad coalition of heavy hitters in science, government, environmental organizations, foundations and business, all committed to cleaning up the lakes in short order. Most striking is the business involvement.

Visit the offices of Don Heilman and James Tye, the organization's president and vice president, and you will soon get that point. Your average nonprofit offices are cramped and windowless. The spacious Clean Lakes Alliance offices have floor-to-ceiling windows looking out, appropriately enough, on Lake Mendota. The surroundings have the quiet, plush feeling of a high-end law firm. In fact, the space in the Verex building is an in-kind contribution from Foley & Lardner, Wisconsin's largest law firm. Power comes with the real estate.

And it is not just Foley. The group's $700,000 annual budget is supported by Lands' End, Spectrum Brands, Madison Gas and Electric, ATC, Hy Cite Corp. and the Madison Community Foundation.

Tye, who directs the public relations and fundraising efforts of the Alliance, makes it clear that this is, in fact, a business-led effort with businesslike practicality. He explains that over the years there have been numerous studies related to the lakes, plenty of mostly government-led projects and a whole menu of available options. "But when you went to chief operating officers [of major firms], they'd want to know, 'how much is this going to cost?'"

So his organization went to work answering that question, retaining planning firm Strand Associates to cost out all the strategies. The result is the Yahara CLEAN Strategic Action Plan, which includes 14 initiatives ranging from leaf management to stabilizing urban shorelines. The bottom-line cost is $128.1 million over 20 years. Almost $50 million of that is projected private investment in "digesters" that convert cow manure and some other wastes into energy, leaving public and additional private investments of $78 million.

That's expensive, but Tye tries to put it in perspective. "How much did it cost to rebuild East Washington Avenue?" he asks rhetorically. That was just about $78 million.

What's different this time?

As we have seen this kind of optimism associated with big new initiatives before, some degree of skepticism about this latest effort might be warranted. So I asked several experts in science, politics and civic leadership what might be different this time around.

All of them echoed to some extent the answer given by Steve Goldberg, the executive director of the CUNA Mutual Foundation, a major funder of the new effort. "The Clean Lakes Alliance is the most disciplined, comprehensive, strategic and sustainable approach ever mounted in the history of our lakes," Goldberg says.

That's a forceful statement because it's not like nothing has been done for the last four decades. The state Legislature formed the Lakes and Watershed Commission in 1988, and the Department of Natural Resources and Dane County began the decade-long Mendota Priority Watershed Project in 1997. More recently, the DNR, Dane County and the city of Madison came together with a joint agreement and multiple-point plan called Yahara CLEAN.

The accumulated knowledge from these efforts and from years of study - Lake Mendota may be the most studied lake in North America - has led experts to certain conclusions about how to make progress.

That is important because while all of the efforts to date have resulted in scientifically measurable progress, average citizens would probably agree that things used to be better. As a kid, says Goldberg, a native of Madison, "we could swim, fish and boat on the lakes without worrying about water quality."

Progress that can be measured scientifically at the center of the lake cannot always be perceived by a public that largely experiences the lakes at their edges.

Still, there is newfound excitement in this latest cleanup effort, and many are looking with optimism to a new regulatory tool called "adaptive management." This is what drives the other initiatives laid out in the Clean Lakes Alliance's plan.

Upstream, downstream

Under the federal and state phosphorus-reduction rules that went into effect in late 2010, the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District is required to reduce the amount of phosphorus in water coming out of its treatment plant. The problem is that the MMSD plant discharge enters the Yahara River downstream of the Yahara chain of lakes. That means that any phosphorus removed would have no impact at all on water quality upstream.

So the sewerage district negotiated with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to allow it to develop a flexible plan under which the district would spend money to reduce phosphorus from rural and urban lands in the watersheds of the Yahara lakes. The idea is analogous to pollution trading so that MMSD can spend the least and use the most effective strategy to accomplish the required amount of phosphorus reduction.

The Clean Lakes Alliance estimates that its plan will cost about one-third of what the sewerage district would have to spend in brick-and-mortar improvements to reduce the same amount of phosphorus - and the benefits will be seen in the Yahara lakes, not just further downstream.

And the stakes are even higher. Melissa Malott, water program director for the environmental group Clean Wisconsin, who helped write the phosphorus rules along with agency and industry partners, says this is the first time such a flexible plan has been allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The EPA and other states are watching to see how this works," she says.

Lake biology

Let's step back to get a quick lesson in lake biology from the best lake scientists anywhere.

Steve Carpenter and Richard Lathrop have been studying the Madison lakes for almost four decades.

In separate interviews, each explained to me that when people talk about the lakes being "dirty" they usually mean algae. Algae is that sometimes smelly scum you see floating on the surface of the lakes in the summer. Blue-green algae can actually be deadly when ingested by humans or animals.

Phosphorus feeds algae. By far the leading source of phosphorus in the Madison lakes is cow manure, mostly from the big farms north of Lake Mendota. Since water flows through Lake Mendota first on its way down through Lakes Monona, Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa, any phosphorus kept out of the big lake will have benefits all down the chain.

Those farms have typically spread their manure on land as fertilizer, but much of it runs into the lake. To address that problem, one large manure digester has been built near Waunakee, and a second is in the works further west.

Think of a manure digester as a sort of wastewater treatment plant for cow dung. It's essentially a big airtight vat into which manure and other waste products are pumped or trucked. Without oxygen present, bacteria break the waste down and produce methane, which can then be converted into electricity or natural gas. The waste products coming out the other end contain all the phosphorus, which can then be disposed of in a way that doesn't get into the lakes.

Digesters are only one of 14 items in the Yahara CLEAN Strategic Action Plan. Each item comes with a cost estimate, the amount of phosphorus expected to be eliminated, and the cost per pound of phosphorus. So, for example, the cheapest strategy is to reduce construction-site erosion, at $25 per pound of phosphorus kept from the lakes. Reducing total suspended solids in municipal stormwater is the most costly strategy, at $860 per pound of phosphorus.

The plan is to combine the 14 strategies to reduce total phosphorus pollution by half in 20 years.

State of the lakes

The Clean Lakes Alliance's 2012 State of the Lakes Report (PDF) is in itself a sign of progress as a tool to help the community stay on task. The report promises that "this phosphorus reduction should double the number of days when the lakes are clear and our beaches open, and significantly reduce the number of toxic algal blooms."

The second annual State of the Lakes report will be released April 19.

"The lakes will respond if you can reduce [the amount of phosphorus that goes into them]," says Richard Lathrop, a retired DNR limnologist. Lathrop is a Clean Lakes Alliance adviser and one of a handful of key scientific experts on the Madison lakes, having studied them since 1975.

Lathrop and his UW colleague Carpenter completed a study in 2011 that changed thinking about how quickly the lakes could be improved. "Before, the message was that the lakes will never clean up for 30 to 50 years, so there was no hope," he says. "But when we analyzed the data, they really do show a marked response [in a short period of time]."

The data Lathrop and Carpenter analyzed had to do with the lakes' response to droughts. They found that in dry years with little runoff to carry phosphorus to the lakes, lake water quality improved. Their work led them to the conclusion that if we could mimic the low phosphorus runoff of dry years, we could improve water quality in any year. And a 50% reduction in the average phosphorus pollution is about what they think could do the trick.

But Carpenter explains that nothing about the lakes is simple, and no strategy is guaranteed. The wild cards, he says, are climate change and land use. As a warmer climate puts more energy into the atmosphere, big rainfall events are becoming more frequent. Combined with more solid surfaces around the lakes on rooftops, roads, driveways and parking lots, that means more runoff into the lakes. And these runoff events could be so severe that they overwhelm our efforts in other areas.

Carpenter says that adaptive management or pollution trading is not sure to work. "The problem is that the watershed loads are highly variable and difficult to control," he says. "If we were stopping a bicycle, it is like deciding, 'Hey, I will now stop by dragging my feet on the pavement, so I can avoid the expense of brakes.' I am not sure it is a good trade."

Changes in farming

And of course algae is just one problem. All the focus on phosphorus, while welcome, leaves out other important lakes issues, says Jim Lorman. Lorman is a biology professor at Edgewood College, a member of the Clean Lakes Alliance board and a longtime clean lakes activist, especially with regard to Lake Wingra, which abuts the Edgewood campus.

"[The Yahara CLEAN plan] doesn't deal with toxins in fish, mercury, PCBs, lake levels, biodiversity, wetlands, land-use issues and other problems," he says. "That's a whole different level of planning."

For example, Lorman is looking for more fundamental changes in farming that could make manure digesters obsolete. "These changes may mean that the large manure digesters may not be a long-term solution, because that's dependent on a kind of industrial agriculture that may not be sustainable in the long run."

Lorman also feels that the business focus of the Clean Lakes Alliance, while good, does not make it necessarily the best place to locate a broad-based community coalition.

"I would like to see better transparency in their public engagement and decision making," Lorman says. "They're making efforts in this direction, but they haven't quite worked out how to engage the broad community really effectively."

Still, even while he does not yet see the Alliance as being the answer to all questions, Lorman says he is happy it has been so successful at bringing the corporate sector on board. "The money and the awareness that they've raised is really important."

Stormy waters?

But there is trouble on the horizon. While Lorman is concerned that the Clean Lakes Alliance efforts are not comprehensive enough, others may feel they go too far.

There is an effort by Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and Fitchburg Mayor Shawn Pfaff to weaken the phosphorus rules and undermine adaptive management, according to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

Under Soglin and Pfaff's proposal, the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District board would go from five commissioners, all appointed by the county, to nine commissioners, five of which would be appointed by the mayor of Madison.

In a letter sent in early April to elected officials of cities and villages in the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District coverage area, Parisi said this was not about representation but about Soglin's desire to control the board so he could roll back the phosphorus rules.

"Both the mayor[s] have made it clear that their main motivation for seeking this change is their concern about national and state phosphorus rules," Parisi wrote.

A few days after Parisi's letter went out Soglin shot back a memo (PDF) to the Madison Common Council. "The Executive's letter profoundly misstates the issues at stake," Soglin said. He said his move had nothing to do with the phosphorus rules but was rather an attempt to get democratic control over an institution that charges utility rates to customers, two-thirds of whom live in Madison.

The mayor did state, however, that he finds the rules "put an unfair burden on municipalities." He said he would prefer a "modification" of the key goal in the rules - the total maximum daily load of phosphorus that the sewerage district is allowed to discharge.

Clean Wisconsin's Malott says it would be a mistake to change the composition of the board at this point. She says that the answers need to go beyond just the developed areas of the region and that agriculture has to be involved.

"We can't simply throw the book at farmers," she says. "Understanding all the players is critical, and the county executive is the right person to do so, and the only elected official accountable to all of those players."

Political will

So what's different about the latest efforts to clean the lakes is primarily the new, vigorous commitment of the private sector, backed up by the phosphorus rules and the flexible regulatory approach.

In other words, it is a fortuitous combination of government stick and private-sector carrot coming together at the same time. Most of those I interviewed for this story agreed that both were important, and not much progress could be made without one or the other.

While it seems that we have a better, more detailed plan than ever before, as always, the political will to execute it remains in doubt.

"I tend to be optimistic because I tend to have faith in people to figure out smart solutions to things," says Carpenter. "But we really need to get cracking on this. Our watershed and the world in general are changing a lot faster than they were five years ago."

What's ailing the lakes?

Public enemy number one. It's the smelly scum you see floating on the surface of the lakes in summer. It's fed by phosphorus, most of which comes from cow manure and erosion of phosphorus-rich soil. This is the issue the new Clean Lakes Alliance is trying to fix with $128 million over two decades.

Aquatic plants
Sometimes known as "weeds," they're not going away. In fact, if the water becomes more clear thanks to algae reduction, the increased sunlight penetrating the water might make them grow more.

Levels have been steadily rising since the introduction of road salt. Only the city of Madison and Dane County make an attempt to reduce road salt use. Everybody else pours it on.

Global warming is heating up the lakes, which can make them less hospitable to desirable species like yellow perch. And higher surface-water temperatures can contribute to more algal blooms. On the other hand, higher surface-water temps can mean less mixing with the colder phosphorus-rich water at the bottom of deeper lakes Mendota and Monona, thus lessening the internal recycling of phosphorus that fuels algal growth in their surface waters.

Invasive species
Plants like Eurasian milfoil grow rapidly and crowd out desirable native plants. On the other hand, when the DNR stocked walleye and northern pike in Lake Mendota, it led to an increase in water fleas called daphnia. They eat algae and clear the water, a good thing. But now spiny water fleas, a larger invertebrate predator, have arrived, and they eat daphnia, a bad thing. And so it goes.

These accumulate in fish taken from the lake. Mercury, mostly from burning coal, is the main problem, along with the pollution legacy of Madison's early industry.

Water levels
Keeping water levels relatively high is good for boaters but bad for low-lying developed areas and even wetlands if water levels get too high, as the wetlands help control floods and clean runoff. But messing with water levels is always a big political fight.

Isthmus Green Day explores environmental issues

Isthmus Green Day, the free environmental expo, runs 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday, April 20, at Monona Terrace. It includes exhibitors, presentations and speakers focusing on sustainable practices. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, gives a keynote speech at 11 a.m., and author Doug Fine discusses the new green economy at 2 p.m., including the role legal cannabis might play.

In an associated event, the Clean Lakes Alliance presents its Save Our Lakes Summit on Friday, April 19, at Monona Terrace, 7:30 a.m.

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