A Look at Our Lakes on Earth Day

Happy Earth Day!
Wisconsin, of course, is where it all began, thanks to former U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson’s vision. As we here at the blog mulled over an appropriate topic for an Earth Day post, we kept seeing local media coverage about Madison’s lakes. And that had us returning to one thought – April rains bring July pains.

Satellite view of phosphorous-driven algal blooms. Phosphorus carried into Lake Mendota via the Yahara River fertilizes algal growth. Photo: UW SSEC and WisconsinView
Satellite view of phosphorous-driven algal blooms. Phosphorus carried into Lake Mendota via the Yahara River fertilizes algal growth. Photo: UW SSEC and WisconsinView

While the entire Midwest has been waiting for spring to finally fight off winter (sorry, Minnesotans) and get some of those May flowers out of the ground, our daily deluges also have a longer-lasting impact. We asked Center for Limnology director, Steve Carpenter to comment on this soggy spring and here was his reply:

Recent deluges have saturated the soil, raised lake levels and increased runoff that carries massive amounts of phosphorus.  By July, this phosphorus will help thick, green, stinking, and possibly toxic scums of cyanobacteria grow in Madison lakes.

Blue-green (cyanobacteria) bloom off the Hasler Lab dock. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer
Blue-green (cyanobacteria) bloom off the Hasler Lab dock. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

Last year’s drought meant that less phosphorous ran into our lakes, so there was, in effect, less fertilizer for algae later in the summer. Unfortunately, the end of the drought means heavy pollution of the lakes. If we manage the land better, we could reach a future scenario where we had adequate moisture and clean lakes at the same time.

The CFL works with a lot of citizen organizations and government entities to provide the best available science for managing our lakes. And now one group, the Clean Lakes Alliance, is making the latest splash in the arena of lake improvement. Via the latest issue of the Isthmus:

Isthmus Lakes Issue
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. Read the rest here.

The Wisconsin State Journal has also weighed in on the issue in a recent op-ed:

WSJ LogoResearchers routinely dropped a disc into the middle of Lake Mendota last summer to measure how far down it could sink before disappearing from view.

The average clarity was 5.6 feet.
That wasn’t good — even though last year’s drought limited the amount of sediment washing into the water and feeding algae blooms and weeds.
Good transparency would be 6 to 10 feet for the Yahara River chain of lakes, which includes Mendota, Monona, Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa. More than 10 feet is considered excellent.
So this Earth Day, let’s recognize that our lakes still need fixing. Let’s recommit to protecting all of our waterways in the Madison area and across Wisconsin. Read the rest here.

It’s promising that our lakes are so prominently in the forefront of the collective consciousness here in Madison. They should be. They’re the reason this city was founded where it was and they’re a big reason we’re continually considered such a great place to live.

A view of the downtown skyline from Lake Monona. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer
A view of the downtown skyline from Lake Monona. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

Water may seem ubiquitous in Wisconsin. (And, indeed, this April, it has been). But that doesn’t mean we’re water-rich. At a recent event hosted by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters, Steve Carpenter introduced keynote speaker and global water advocate, Sandra Postel, who gave a talk entitled “Our Freshwater Future, Perils and Promise.”
Steve ended his intro with an important point – we here in Wisconsin aren’t immune to water woes. While we do have a lot of freshwater in the state, it’s not necessarily clean. In fact, if dilution is the solution to pollution, well, we put so much fertilizer into our lakes, rivers and streams, that we’re running out of clean water to dilute it to acceptably clean levels. If we only consider how much clean water we have compared to what we’ve pumped full of pollution, then Wisconsin’s water budget resembles New Mexico’s.
It’s a sobering reminder that now, four decades after the launch of the first Earth Day, there’s still so much to do. The good news is, a lot of committed organizations, lawmakers, business groups, citizens and scientists are dedicated to cleaning up.

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