Every time Don Heilman goes out with the Mad-City Ski Team, he's reminded of just how polluted Madison's lakes are.
"It's a very, very bad smell, like a sewer," Heilman says. "There's decaying carp and decaying weeds that tend to form little bogs out in the lake. Cut weeds and dead fish accumulate in these areas. You're skiing around these little decaying islands. It smells like you're in an outhouse. It's not good at all."
It's an unfortunate sign of summer in Madison, when frothy green algae blooms and weed mats sprout and flourish on the city's lakes. It's well known that the lakes are dirty. But because they're not the most polluted lakes in the state, they've never been a priority for the Department of Natural Resources to clean up.
Dane County's Lakes and Watershed Commission doesn't want to wait for the lakes to reach that dubious status. So they're readying a report of recommendations for how to clean up the lakes and rivers in the Yahara Watershed, in hopes of finding the funding to make those recommendations happen.
"Our lakes are really important to our community. The pollution in them makes people sick and costs us money in terms of cleanup and lost tourism revenue each year," says Melissa Malott, commission chair. "The good news is that they aren't past the tipping point and we can do something to clean them up.
The commission's report (PDF) is titled Yahara CLEAN, which stands for Capital Lakes Environmental Assessment and Needs. It identifies the sources of pollution to the lakes and offers recommendations for how to control them.
According to Malott, there are three main types of pollution: phosphorus, which causes algae; nitrogen, which causes weeds; and sediment, which causes cloudiness. Our local lakes also have bacterial pollution from sewage overflows and high mercury levels in fish. Plus algae blooms make them smelly and sometimes unsafe.
"For people who use the lakes, phosphorus is the biggest problem because it leads to algae blooms, including the toxic cyanobacteria from blue-green algae," Malott says. Lake Mendota is the worst hit, with about three-fourths of its phosphorus pollution coming from farms. In Lake Monona, about half the pollution comes from urban sources.
The report focuses largely on agricultural sources of pollution. "Lake Mendota is the first priority," says commission member Jim Lorman, a limnology professor at Edgewood College. "It contributes to the rest of the chain of lakes, so if we can reduce the nutrients coming into Mendota, we can impact the lakes down the line."
Lorman says the commission focused on agricultural pollution because there are already state requirements in place to reduce urban runoff, though it remains to be seen whether or not these will be enforced.
To deal with agricultural pollution, the commission recommends more manure digesters, which eliminate phosphorus from manure (see "From Brown to Green," 7/6/09). It also urges working with farmers to test their soils, discuss crop rotation and develop buffers between farms and streams.
Although everybody is affected by polluted lakes, Malott says some suffer disproportionately. She notes that Madison's only public pool, at Goodman Park, is often "crazy crowded," and private pools are too costly for low-income kids. "So, in a city brimming with water, low-income kids have no access to clean water to play in on hot summer days."
The commission will hold a public hearing on the report this summer, then Lakes and Watershed will prioritize the needs and look for funding sources. Malott says the commission will also look to involve the city and private groups in cleanup efforts. For example, Heilman's group, the Mad-City Ski Team, already contributes by sponsoring the Clean Lakes Festival in August.
Maria Powell knows firsthand how hard it is to convince people that Madison's lakes - despite their stinky, muddy water - can be hazardous to health. Powell, who is active with the Madison Environmental Justice Organization, spends a lot of time persuading anglers not to eat the fish they catch.
The people most affected happen to be poor. Many sport fishermen on fancy boats throw their fish back in the water. But the poorer folk who fish from the shore - including many Latinos, Hmong and African Americans - are fishing for recreation, food and sometimes profit.
"A lot of the folks who fish at Monona Bay come from Milwaukee, from the inner city, to fish," says Powell. "It's very much a getaway for them. But it's also about getting food." Fish is an especially important food source to Hmong families. "It's cultural and spiritual, but it's also economic. And it makes sense because it's free."
Powell says efforts to eliminate nutrients and bacteria from the lakes is important, but she thinks the Watershed Commission overlooks the damage that PCPs, mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxins have on the lakes' health.
"They never talk about toxins," Powell says. "That's what we're mostly concerned about with the fish, [but] clearly it's not a priority for them."
Without these toxins, the lakes could be a vital source of local, sustainable food. "We'd like to see people go down to the lake and get fish to eat," she says. "Getting people to think about the lakes as a food source we shouldn't be polluting is one big step toward cleaning them up."
Malott agrees that toxins cause major problems, but says the state and federal governments regulate them. She thinks it makes sense to focus on eliminating nutrients, something within the power of local governments to control.
"You don't have to go out and catch a fish and eat it to get sick. You just have to touch the water and you can get sick."
Malott is optimistic that the new plan, unlike past plans, will lead to action, because public awareness has reached a critical mass.
"I don't need to tell anyone what the problems in the lakes are - we can see and smell them," she says. "Fortunately, there are manageable solutions that will make a big difference."
Powell is less optimistic. "Development is really winning out," she says. "There are a lot of good people working on this, and they're trying hard, but the reality is the development of large hotels and other developments are going to trump all that. They want to have their cake and eat it too."