Lake regulation, jurisdiction practices flow smoothly for Yahara watershed

by Irene Burski

In the realms of bureaucratic red tape, regulation of any kind is generally difficult, but especially when there are overlaps and disputes in jurisdiction.

“There’s always going to be stress across jurisdictions,” said former Dane County executive Rick Phelps. “But with the lakes and the watershed, that doesn’t really make sense.”

The Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the city of Madison are all jointly charged with the task of preserving and cleaning up the lakes and waters of the Yahara Watershed for both the present and future.


However, in a departure from the normal narrative, according to the majority of local city and county officials, this overlap in jurisdiction is arguably beneficial for one simple reason: the goals and interests of each entity are similar regarding the lakes. Every entity wants to improve the quality and ensure that the resources of the lakes are there for future generations.

“Anything we do to clean up the lakes has to be a joint effort,” said Mike Gerner, Lakes and Watershed Commission member and Yahara Lakes Association representative. “Everybody has goals that are fairly well aligned, and they all want better water quality. This just focuses that goal a little more locally.”

The Lakes and Watershed Commission takes a more “holistic” approach in comparison to the city of Madison, according to Gerner, citing a need to incorporate both urban and rural regulation standards and issues.

Between the city of Madison and Dane County, officials work with each other to determine what is within each’s legal authority, but the lion’s share of the governing ability lies at the county level, according to Rebecca Power, Lakes and Watershed Commission Vice Chair.

“I think the commission plays a vital role in water resource management in the county because of its ability to cross jurisdictional boundaries,” Power said. “Water crosses jurisdictional boundaries, whether it is surface water or groundwater, and we need to have institutions that allow us to manage water across jurisdictional boundaries.”

According to the charter of the Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission, the organization’s job is to recommend a course of action for local government to take in ensuring the environmental health of the Yahara Watershed.

“We are a creature of Wisconsin state statute as well as as a creature of Dane County ordinance,” Power said. “We have responsibility for surface water resources, groundwater resources … planning responsibilities and coordinating responsibilities.”

Created in 1988 by Phelps, the commission was instituted to fill an environmental regulation void existing in Dane County regarding the lakes. There had been previous efforts at the state level to set up a policy-making entity apart from the Wisconsin DNR for Dane County, but its failure and veto encouraged Phelps to implement a county version, which became the Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission.

“I think it caused a cultural change [in attitude regarding] county regulation.” Phelps said. “Before, county government was more of a good old boy’s network when it came to regulating land issues.”

Statewide, the DNR still has a hand in managing what happens in the lakes of the Yahara Watershed, and for certain matters, the Lakes and Watershed Commission acts as the state’s implementer, according to Dane County Supervisor Chuck Erickson.

“The DNR sets the [target] lake levels, and we have to manage them,” Erickson said. “Which is one of the most challenging things we have to deal with.”

Erickson, one of the four Dane County supervisors on the commission, represents the city of Madison. But the commission also includes three citizens, one representative of the Yahara Lakes Association, one designee of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and one designee of Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

“The make-up of the commission, with 10 members representing a variety of perspectives, I think gives it credibility as it recommends policies and programs for the county board,”  said Watershed Management Coordinator Sue Jones. “If such a diverse body can agree on a recommendation, then it has been thoroughly vetted.”

The variation of backgrounds, besides giving the public confidence in the decisions made, also is beneficial for the commission itself, according to Power, who is the mayor’s designee on the commission.

“There’s a lot more than science that goes into public policy making,” Power said, citing her scientific knowledge but lack of policy-creating background.


The scientific aspects, particularly the phosphorus and chloride pollution, cited by Steve Carpenter , director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology, as two of the biggest issues facing the Yahara Watershed, varies from year to year. According to the Dane County State of the Waters report, phosphorus levels were reduced by 208 pounds from the years of 1988 to 1998.

“If it’s a year without rain, water quality will be very good [because there’s no runoff],” Carpenter said.

However, it’s always an issue because agricultural runoff comes from multiple sources rather than just one point source, according to Phelps.

“The water quality seems to be holding fairly steady across the chain of lakes for a number of years.” Power said. “However, that ‘steady’ is not the quality that they would like to see… we can do better.”

Phelps expects the commission to continue to play its central role in regulation and does not anticipate an end date for when the lakes’ problems will be completely solved.

“In most people’s minds [now], the Lakes and Watershed Commission has always been there,” Phelps said. “At the end of the day, there’s never going to be a time when these issues don’t exist.”