Gulf of Mexico closer to Madison than most think

by Gabrielle Menard 

To most people in Madison, the Gulf of Mexico is a far-off place with far-off problems, the end of the meandering road for the Mississippi River more than 1,000 miles away. But despite that distance, those in Madison are connected to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, seemingly a lot closer than most might realize, through the chain of sinks, sewers and drains.

The Mississippi River is one of the biggest and best-known river systems in the world. It is a source of drinking water, recreation and commercial activities for millions of people along the river and in different parts of the United States. What most don’t realize, however, is that the Mississippi River’s water quality is affected by what people in Madison, Wisconsin and its Yahara Watershed do.

According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate Project website, the Yahara Watershed encompasses the Madison area, covering more than 170,000 acres and is home to roughly 370,000 people. A watershed is defined as a natural drainage for rain and snow melt. Within a watershed, all water flows to a single point at lower elevation, where it typically joins another body of water and continues its movement.


The phosphorous that drains out of Lake Mendota and the other lakes in the Yahara Watershed do contribute in the long run to the Mississippi River and its failing water quality. Regulations that are enforced on the Yahara’s lakes are directly correlated to the phosphorus load that is carried into the Mississippi River — and which, for the most part — stays there.

Referring to Lake Mendota and how its care affects the Mississippi River, Steve Carpenter, Director of UW Center for Limnology, pointed out that it is a “knee bone is connected to the thigh bone” sort of thing. Meaning that what happens to one thing, usually happens to another.

In the Yahara Watershed, all surface water ends up in the Yahara River, which sends the water to the Rock River, which flows into the Mississippi River and then ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico.

Friends of the Mississippi River is an organization that is housed in Minneapolis focused on engaging citizens to protect, restore and enhance the Mississippi River and its watershed in the Twin Cities region. According to Friends of the Mississippi River, the upper Mississippi River is losing much of its ecological vitality. Water quality is impaired in 82 percent of the river from the headwaters in north central Minnesota to the Quad Cities in Iowa and Illinois, and that is then greatly effecting what is happening down south in the Gulf of Mexico.

Students and other members of the UW Hoofers Outing Club take a break on a sandbar in the Wisconsin River, near the confluence with the Mississippi River. (Photo by: Michael Forster Rothbart)

“I grew up just outside of Minneapolis. I have actually heard of the organization Friends of the Mississippi River and I really like what they do. It is crazy to think that the river that I see all the time and what I do with it, is effecting lives along the Gulf Coast. It’s not something I have ever thought about and I think that it will definitely affect what I do in and around the Mississippi River in the future,” said Jina Schoenborn, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a frequent participant in water recreation in Minneapolis.

Gregory Michaelson, a senior at Tulane University just outside of New Orleans, has spent countless hours in the Gulf of Mexico waters and plans to continue to do so in the future. Although, Michaelson does admit that he didn’t realize how dirty the waters truly were and where the problems might be originated.

“It’s interesting to think that what people up North are doing has a huge impact on how the water is in my area of the United States. Makes you think a little bit about the way that you treat the water around you and who it’s affecting on any given day,” Michaelson said.

When asked about people’s awareness of their impact on water, Carpenter expressed concern, explaining that the education people have about the condition of the Mississippi, and its connection to the Yahara Watershed and its vulnerability to what we do around here is minimal.

“I honestly had no idea that the Yahara Watershed was connected with the Mississippi River. It definitely makes me think twice about how I treat the water in Madison and the surrounding areas,” said Lauren Radix, a Madison resident.

Radix isn’t alone. According to a survey done of 50 Madison residents, 49 did not know that the Yahara Watershed was connected to the Mississippi River.

“I spend a lot of time in the water in Madison, whether it be in Lake Mendota or Monona, and I had no idea that they were connected to the Mississippi River. I wish this was better known­­ throughout the area—I think people would care a lot more about the water and how they treat them,” said Dylan Fiedler, a Madison resident and student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Activity by residents up the river, including in Wisconsin, has contributed to a large “dead zone” forming in the Gulf of Mexico every spring.

A dead zone, according to the National Ocean Service is, “an area in the ocean of such low oxygen concentration that that animal life suffocates and dies.” Each spring as farmers fertilize their lands preparing for crop season, rain washes fertilizer off the land into the streams and rivers. That makes its way from the Yahara Watershed all the way down the river to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi is basically caused by Iowa, Illinois, to some extent Wisconsin and I suppose to some extent Missouri,” Carpenter said. “We are a contributor to that dead zone but there are millions of acres and thousands of farms that are causing that dead zone as well. Our lakes are just an itty bitty part of the system way up in the head waters. So the direct connection is pretty weak, but nonetheless I think it is useful that we are in the Mississippi watershed and the problems in the Mississippi and in the Gulf of Mexico are a link to us.”

This is why the government and organizations have teamed up to start things such as the Clean Water Act. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, the Clean Water Act is the cornerstone of surface water quality protection in the United States. The act employs measures designed to reduce pollutant discharges into waterways, finance wastewater treatment facilities, protect wetlands and manage polluted biological integrity of the nation’s waters.

“We are among the contributors, we’re among thousands or millions of contributors but nonetheless we’re all a part of the problem,” Carpenter said.