Letter to the Editor: No, Madison’s Lakes Aren’t “Dead.”

The following is the Center for Limnology’s response (published Sunday, February 18) to a disheartening letter to the editor of the Wisconsin State Journal that proclaimed our lakes “dead” and declared it was time to give up on them. Needless to say, we did not agree! 

Adam Hinterthuer, Grace Wilkinson and Hilary Dugan 2/18/24 – The recent letter to the editor “Limiting salt is too little, too late,” claimed that Madison’s lakes are “dead.” It argued that it is “too late to save our lakes,” and anyone who thinks otherwise is “delusional.”

We understand the frustration with the perceived lack of positive change in our water quality. But to borrow from Mark Twain, reports of our lakes’ death are greatly exaggerated.

Our lakes are very much alive.

It is true that our research shows some troubling trends. The timing and intensity of potentially harmful algal blooms is changing. Non-native species such as zebra mussels and spiny water fleas have altered food webs. Oxygen-starved “dead zones” at the bottom of the lake are forming earlier and lasting longer each summer. And our freshwater is getting saltier.

Thankfully, rather than causing inaction and despair, this research has helped inform and encourage positive change in our watershed.

Farmers are using less phosphorus and implementing conservation efforts to keep soil in place on their fields. Municipalities are using less salt and more sand on their paved winter surfaces. Homeowners are raking leaves to keep them out of storm drains and using rain barrels and rain gardens to slow the flow of urban runoff. Lakeshore development now favors natural shorelines over concrete walls.

Imagine the state of our lakes if, instead, we had done nothing.

It is understandable to want to see conclusive results from all of this work. Unfortunately, environmental problems aren’t often resolved in such tidy timeframes.

For starters, our lakes must now contend with the unpredictable winters, warmer waters and more intense rainstorms that climate change brings to the table. These are developments that, without our efforts, would be making our waters even worse.

Beyond climate impacts, solving a big problem simply takes a long time. A recent Center for Limnology paper found that a lake recovering from nutrient pollution goes through five phases of recovery. The first is a quick, modest improvement in water quality. But a second phase follows where the lake stubbornly resists positive change for decades.

It might sound discouraging, but that long lag is a part of the process. Eventually, a third phase — one marked by rapid water quality improvements — kicks in.

The key is not giving up. It took us well over 100 years to get into this mess, and it will take decades of work to get us out. To quote the author of that paper, “If you want some modest change [in water quality] for yourself, we can do that now. But if you want change for your grandchildren, well, now we have to be persistent.”

In spite of the many challenges they face, our lakes are still an invaluable resource — widely used for recreation, integral to our sense of place and beautiful in their own right.

The author of the recent letter to the editor writes that he got 75 years of enjoyment from boating, fishing and swimming in these lakes. We believe the next generation of Wisconsinites deserves a similar future.

Our lakes are sick. But they are most certainly not dead. And it isn’t even remotely time to pull the plug.