Our Lakes: A Dirty Little Secret

Look underneath their shimmering blue exterior and underneath there's problems

It is summer in Madtown.

After a spring cursed with awful weather and even worse politics, any columnist with an ounce left in the brain pan would opt to pen something light, breezy, witty and relaxing for readers to enjoy during our three-week summer.

After all, we’ve had enough drama, haven’t we?

But no. Sadly, that is not where this is going. Instead I would like to take this opportunity to make us all the slightest bit uncomfortable. It is an unpleasant job, but someone’s got to do it.

I would like to broach the topic of dirty little secrets.

All families have them. Like the time Grandma was arrested after she accidentally walked out of Macy’s with that scarf. Or Uncle Joe’s deplorable breath.Even cities have sad, awful tales they keep under wraps. Except, of course, Madison. How could WE have a dirty little secret?

Preposterous! Here in Madison we are damn near perfect. We are regularly voted the Most Livable City in America for children, men, women, lesbians, families, iceboat sailors, dogs, cyclists and binge drinkers.

But we do have a secret. And it is dirty. And worse yet, is it not little.

Imagine our lakes Mendota, Monona, Kegonsa and Wingra were beautiful women, say, Julia Roberts, Halle Barry, Penelope Cruz and Cindy Crawford. Or, depending upon your preference, call them Daniel Craig, Denzel Washington, Matt Damon and Bradley Cooper. You have seen pictures of them. You have admired their natural, unblemished beauty from afar. They look just about perfect. And then finally one day you get to meet one of them in person. What a thrill!!! Your heart goes pit a pat.

But how would you feel when, upon shaking Daniel Craig’s hand, you discovered that his breath was worse than Uncle Joe’s? Or that Cindy Crawford had a thin film of green scum over her teeth? Or Bradley Cooper carried a dead carp in his shirt pocket? Just how beautiful would these people seem to you then? Worse yet, what if, after shaking hands with one of these supposedly beautiful people, you immediately broke out in an itchy swimsuit rash?

And that, dear readers, is what you call a metaphor for Madison’s Dirty Little Secret. Our lakes are not nearly as beautiful as they look from afar. In fact, delude all you want, but the truth is that they are deeply troubled, smelly and befouled. In the next few weeks, like December ice, they will slowly cloak themselves in a film of algae and debris none of us likes to consider or discuss. And why?

Because we are embarrassed for ourselves.

We know that it is just not right to have empty, closed beaches. We know that the only thing more shocking than a shoreline bordered by August scum and algae is that we are now used to it.

It is a reality all the more difficult for Madisonians of a certain age who remember a time when our beaches were actually open. When Madisonians waded with delight at The Willows. Cannonballed at BB Clarke. Eased our way down the sandstone steps at Tenney Park. One local writer even met his bride at Vilas Beach. If he were a young man today, such a meet might never have happened and he would have remained a lonely, besotted bachelor forever.

All of this is even more difficult to stomach because our lakes are among the most studied bodies of water in the world. Every student who ever attended Wisconsin took Limnology 101, puttering out on Mendota on a small research craft. We have done an excellent job of graphing our lakes’ demise. We know exactly what is happening—that the nutrients from our fertile agricultural lands that give us our wonderful Farmers’ Market have become, with an awful symmetry, our lakes’ worst enemies.

We know the problem and the facts. But somehow we can’t summon the will, plan and resources to save these waters. Indeed, if these elements existed, we would have no secret to hide.

So perhaps it is time for a lakes intervention. A conscious, public end to our shared self-delusion. A gang confession that our Mendota, Monona, Kegonsa and Wingra are our Dirty Little Secret. Only then can we get to a place, in a polarized political time, where we come together, government, citizens and business alike, to solve a problem we all share. The newly formed Clean Lakes Alliance could be the start we need.

And if we don’t?

Well then we’ll have another Dirty Little Secret.

And that will be that we chose to do nothing at all.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.

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