By: Colleen Degnan and Kerry Justich
As her graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison neared, senior Emily Bruksch recounted her favorite thing about being a Badger: Lake Mendota. An active member of Outdoor UW’s club, Hoofers, Bruksch enjoyed the lake since her freshman year. From kayaking, canoeing or even walking down Lakeshore Path, she watched as Memorial Union and Lake Mendota evolved.
Lake Mendota is one of UW’s campus landmarks, stretching 9,781 acres outside of Memorial Union. It brings students, residents and tourists in for a relaxing day on the terrace or for activities in the water. To maintain the union’s sustainability, the university initiated the Memorial Union Reinvestment Project (MUR). After years of mediocre structures in Lake Mendota, the union has recognized existing problems, expanding MUR to Outdoor UW. This expansion has identified toxicity in Lake Mendota and has prioritized the lake’s cleanliness.
Director of the Center for Limnology Steve Carpenter explained the toxins in Lake Mendota, citing phosphorous as the detrimental issue.
“Our region has a lot of phosphorous,” Carpenter said. “Things that live in water are extremely sensitive to phosphorous oversupply, so the algae blooms that we get in the summer that drives the public crazy and interferes with fishing and boating, is caused by excess phosphorous.”
Carpenter describes this oversupply as a green scum or “glop,” which is visible to the common lake-goer and can be toxic. This toxic plant known as cyanbacteria has not gone unnoticed, specifically alerting those in charge of the union’s reconstruction.
The university first developed Memorial Union in 1904. The structure that students know today was built in 1928, and until last year, had never been renovated. With the Memorial Union Reinvestment project underway, the union’s director Mark Guthier discussed the ideal of “Preserving the past. Building the future.”
“I think it’s the overall redesign of the whole outdoor space,” Guthier said. “We are preserving Memorial Union historically as a building which people will enjoy and appreciate, but the place that really pulls at their heartstring is the terrace and the Outdoor UW.”
Outdoor UW encompasses the union’s connection with Lake Mendota by providing an outlet to the outdoors. By including outdoor rentals, outdoor education and the home of the Wisconsin Hoofers, this space was vital to the beginnings of the MUR and the preservation of the lake’s conditions. Goodspeed Family Pier was a crucial beginning to renewal in the lake and served as the union’s initial promise to keep the water clean.
“The permanent pier that went in was all designed with oversight from the DNR,” Guthier said. “The water does not collect on either side of it,” meaning that the pier does not create cesspools.
Similar to Guthier’s concerns with the cesspools, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Research Limnologist Richard Lathrop credited the former pier for problems. He reiterated the importance of the Goodspeed Family Pier replacing what had been there before.
“Getting rid of the pier was a good thing because it was creating little coves where debris would accumulate along the shoreline,” Lathrop said. “They were certainly aware of all the environmental needs to prevent erosion.”
Not only did the reconstruction team consider the necessary environmental improvements, but also the physical appeal of Outdoor UW’s headquarters. The Hoofer’s previous office inadequately reflected the lively morale of the club. Hoofer’s President Abby Douglas elaborated on the changes that MUR has made to the legitimacy of the hub for all of Madison’s lake enthusiasts.
“It used to be this really hot office in the basement of the Memorial Union,” Douglas said regarding Hoofer’s old office. “With this [new] space, it really allows us to be a lot more professional and be a lot more welcoming and opening to people.”
With an increase in Hoofer’s memberships and interest in lake activities, the renewal has led to more awareness of the lake’s conditions and increased advocacy in keeping Mendota safe. Douglas explained Hoofer’s recent partnership with Clean Lakes Alliance as an effort to reinforce the club’s investment in Lake Mendota.
“That’s one of the things that we want to make sure of, that we continue to advocate for, is clean lakes and making sure that everyone is open to use these lakes,” Douglas said. “Especially since our program uses it so much.”
Alongside Hoofers’ efforts to maintain the lake’s cleanliness, Lathrop discussed the union’s improvements in informing the public of Mendota’s conditions. This includes signs and warnings on days of possible dangers, as well as frequent testing of the lake’s water.
“There’s been a lot more awareness in the past 10 to 15 years about the university, from its footprint as far as the lake,” Lathrop said. “My sense is they’re doing a much better job than maybe in the past.”
As emphasis on the lake’s conditions has been of ultimate importance throughout MUR, the renewal has shed light on Lake Mendota’s vital role in Memorial Union’s history.
While Guthier explained that construction has caused no problems with the lake, he reflected on the revitalization that the improvements have brought to Outdoor UW.
“What’s been amazing to me is to see the number of people who are able to sit down there and enjoy the lake again,” Guthier said.
As Phase I of the renewal project comes to an end, Guthier has recognized outdoor improvements as a unifying effort to keep the terrace and Lake Mendota as a landmark for future generations to come.
“All that comes together in a signature location on the campus that everybody remembers, everybody loves and everybody returns to,” Guthier said.
Although Bruksch’s final weeks are filled with bittersweet thoughts, her nostalgia stems mostly from times at Lake Mendota.
“I just try to utilize the lake as much as possible,” Bruksch said, “because we are on an isthmus, so why not?”
She is one of thousands reluctant to leave Madison; however, with the recent renewal, she is reassured that this iconic spot will forever remain to welcome her return.