Years of effort for lake clean up, yet no improvement

By: Bryan Kristensen

While a lot of positive things are being done in the Madison area to improve our lakes, there is still some gloomy news for residents in the area: it’s not working like we want it to.

While there are numerous organizations and measures going into place to help improve our watershed, experts are still skeptical about the future for our watershed. Steve Carpenter, director of the Center of Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently summarized the health of the lakes in a story with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

“They are flatlining. There is no trend in the lakes.The lake water quality is not getting better. It’s not getting noticeably worse. It’s as if the interventions we’re doing are just holding the line,” Carpenter said to reporter Kate Golden.

Click Here to See Kate Golden’s Story from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Even with organizations like Clean Lakes Alliance and efforts across the county from the county government and other local municipalities working to combat the deterioration of our ecosystem and instead improve it, we haven’t seen these improvements take shape. So this just begs one obviously massive, yet simple question: why?

The Yahara Watershed, which consists of Lakes Mendota, Monona, Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa, and all of the rivers, streams, and creeks that flow in and out of these lakes. A watershed, according to Carpenter, is an area of land that brings water to a certain receiving water. In one area, collections of rivers, streams, creeks and lakes all combine to form one singular watershed.

The Yahara Watershed also contributes to a much bigger watershed: the Mississippi River. So, any problems that occur in our watershed, will eventually become a part of the river, and eventually, the Gulf of Mexico.

Carpenter and Dick Lathrop, his longtime colleague and research partner in the UW-Madison Department of Limnology, said two major things have been contributing to the masking of any advancements in the innovation of our lakes: continual buildup of phosphorus in the watershed and a rise in the amount of powerful storms that are creating more runoff events around the watershed.

Algal Blooms like this one off the shore of Lake Mendota can form when a lot of phosphorus runs off into the lake. Photo: Bryce Richter, University Communications

Too much phosphorus going into the lakes is bad for the lake, Carpenter said, because phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plant growth. When too much phosphorus enters our water sources in the watershed, excess algae begins to grow in the waters, and can cause harm to the lakes.

Carpenter said in the 1990s, a program went into place that was called the Priority Watershed Program, and the program was meant to decrease the phosphorus levels in the lakes by a factor of two. Money was funneled into the program and many different innovations went into the program, Carpenter said, but the phosphorus levels did not change like experts expected.

Carpenter said from the time the program began to the time it ended, manure production around the watershed increased across the area, and, as a result, more phosphorus was released into the soil and ran off into the lake. Eric Booth, an assistant research scientist for the Department of Agronomy and Civil & Environmental Engineering at UW-Madison, said that county records have shown researchers that since the 1970s, there’s been a major increase in milk production across the watershed. Because more milk is being produced, that means more manure is being produced as well.

Lathrop said the current manure management plan is not helping solve the problems that we continually have around the area, which is having a major impact on the ecosystem.

“We have a worsening manure management problem. First of all, there are more animals out in the watershed with less land to spread the manure as a result of urban development, and that has put more manure on less land than we have had in the past, which can cause more runoffs,” Lathrop said.

This decrease in farmland as a result of urban development, Lathrop said, also means that the amount of impervious land increases around the watershed, which will contribute to a higher volume of runoffs around the area in the watershed.

Manure piles like this one can be harmful to the lakes if allowed to sit out in heavy rainstorms. Photo taken from Wikipedia Commons

Manure is a big problem across the entire area, and it’s causing lots of problems. Carpenter said that for all of the phosphorus that appears in the lakes, at least half of it comes from manure from agriculture. One solution that Carpenter and Lathrop both said could aid in the reduction of manure in the watershed is the use of manure digesters.

Manure digesters are large tanks that collect manure from farms, combines them with other waste products and heats the waste up to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes methane gas to be released in the digesters, which in turn is used to produce sustainable energy, according to Darryl Mass, co-founder of Farm Power, a company that manufactures manure digesters.

Click Here to see a Farm Power video to see how a digester works

Lathrop said even with two manure digesters located in the Yahara Watershed right now, with one in Waunakee and another in Middleton, they are only handling about 15 percent of the manure that is produced by agriculture in the area.

The increase in the amount of powerful storms has also played a huge role in the flatlining of progress in the watershed. Extreme runoff events occur when a storm brings greater than three inches of rain in one day, Lathrop said.

In the 2000s decade alone, Lathrop points to data showing we saw a rise of three times the amount of extreme runoff events occur around our area, in comparison to the previous three decades. This, combined with the rise in manure buildup in the watershed, has worked against what has been done to improve water quality within the watershed.

“We spent millions of dollars on good practices, but the weather got worse and there was more manure, and so the unbalance that was produced resulted in no net change in the lakes,” Carpenter said.

Ankur Desai, an associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UW-Madison, confirmed that in the past half century, there has indeed been an increase in the number of heavy rainfall events. Desai also said there has been an increase in the average temperature of our area, and each of these increases is a result of climate change.

The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts recently released a map that outlined the changes in mean temperature and extreme precipitation events for the past several decades, and also included projections for the changes in the near future in the two categories. According to the report, Wisconsin’s annual average temperature is expected to increase by four to nine degrees Fahrenheit, and the state is also expected to see a potential 25 percent increase in the number of high frequency rain events.

Click Here to see the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impact’s Report

While we cannot control the weather and the amount of big storms that occur in our area, experts said something can be done to decrease the phosphorus levels in the lake that come from manure runoff from agriculture. Lathrop said we need to handle all of the raw manure that farmers are producing in some kind of treatment facility.

While manure digesters may be the most popular choice for us to use, the one put in place in Waunakee by Clear Horizons has experienced several problems in the past couple years, including a few instances in which a high percentage of the manure in the digester ended up running off into Six Mile Creek.

The digester in Waunakee also was recently accused of 40 instances of releasing hydrogen sulfide and formaldehyde into the air and causing pollution in the area, as reported by Jessica Arp of WISC-TV in Madison. These problems with the digester have led to a question in the upkeep of the digester by Clear Horizons.

However, Elizabeth Katt-Reinders, director of policy and communication for the Clean Lakes Alliance, a leading organization in efforts to clean up the watershed, said that when you look at how much manure is produced and put through the digester and compare that to the amount that has runoff in the lakes from the leaks in the digesters, the amount of manure successfully processed greatly outnumbers the runoff manure.

Lathrop said another practice that could be implemented in the watershed is using technology that could separate manure into solids and liquids, while keeping all of the phosphorus that is found in manure in solid form. In doing so, Lathrop said, transporting this solid phosphorus is much easier and cheaper, and could be sent to industries that need it.

In addition to the development of technologies related to processing manure, Carpenter said that directly on farms, farmers can help reduce the amount of phosphorus traveling into the lakes by creating buffer strips on farmland, which can help retain soil and reduce erosion and runoff, and also by planting cover crops, which also can reduce erosion of the soil while also working to improve the soil and water quality in the ground.

There are definitely still bright spots in all of this research and fight to clean up the lakes. Booth noted that without the two phosphorus gauges at Pheasant Beach Creek and Upper Yahara River, we would be nowhere near where we are today. Booth said because we have been studying this since the 1970s, we have extensive research that has benefited scientists and researchers and helped them in coming up with different ways to help the watershed.

Katt-Reinders noted that while there may not be any increases in the quality of the lakes being seen, if we didn’t do anything to try and combat the issue, the watershed would be in a much worse place.

“While water quality may not be improving, we would expect it to be getting worse given that agriculture is intensifying, urbanization is increasing, and climate change is bringing an increase in the intensity and magnitude of heavy storms,” Katt-Reinders said. “So that fact that water quality is flatlining suggests that interventions on the landscape and policy changes are having a positive impact.”

With ideas for further improvements on the table, it will be up to public and local municipalities to contribute to the matter. In the meantime, as Lathrop and Carpenter point out, agriculture isn’t abandoning our area any time soon.

Lathrop said as long as agriculture is as vital and central to our area, we have to change how our society farms if we want to be able to see any improvements in our watershed. Carpenter agrees that this must happen to see improvements as well.

“We need to continue to work on technologies of this kind. We need to make dairy farming safer for fresh water. Dairy and water are two major features for Wisconsin, and right now they are completely incompatible, and we need to figure out how we can have them coexist,” Carpenter said.