Crazy for Lakes

Enjoying Madison's most precious community resource while embarking on the biggest, boldest, most exciting clean lakes effort yet

If you want to help clean up Madison’s lakes, the Clean Lakes Alliance has a few suggestions:

• Take the kids on a tour of a local farm
• Enjoy live music, al fresco, at a Madison park
• Enter an online contest and win a prize

What’s that you say? What do farms, parks and the Internet have to do with lakes … or even with water?

There is a very good reason that these are just some of the places where you’ll find the Clean Lakes Alliance. This remarkable non-profit has been coming up with creative ways to engage and educate the public about our lakes since 2009. They raise awareness. They turn goodwill into good works. And for CLA, every place is a water place.

“Everyone in this area lives on land that is fed by the streams and wetlands of the Yahara Watershed, which in turn feeds our lakes,” says Don Heilman, CLA president. “So in that sense, everyone in Dane County lives on lakefront property. That’s why we hold all kinds of events on and off the lakes: to give everyone a chance to get involved in protecting these precious natural resources.”

The farm tours, for instance, are offered free of charge by farmers belonging to a group called Yahara Pride Farms. And Yahara Pride Farms was formed under the auspices of the Alliance to promote best practices and help the agricultural community manage farmland with an eye toward cleaner lakes—even more so than they’ve been doing for years. As a result, everyone is invited to tour a Yahara Pride Farm and see how farmers are filtering, conserving or otherwise improving the water that seeps, eventually, from their land into our lakes.

Every June a wonderful collaboration of residents, area companies and their employees participate in a seventeen-day, all-hands-on-deck spring cleaning of all five area lakes: Mendota, Monona,
Waubesa, Kegonsa and little Wingra. Organized as Take A Stake In The Lakes Days, this series of events was created twenty-five years ago by the Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission.

To celebrate the twenty-five years of volunteerism, the Clean Lakes Alliance partnered with the Lakes and Watershed Commission to bring new partners and more volunteers to the event featuring countywide educational and action opportunities, teams from the area’s largest employers serving as clean-up crews and many other special happenings, including lakeside yoga and paddle-to-work days that brought thousands of people closer to the lakes.

Jazz in the Park on the shores of Lake Wingra capped off the three weeks of activities with a celebration for volunteers, sponsors and the public.

All Together Now

By many measures, the members of the Clean Lakes Alliance couldn’t be more different from one another: small- business owners, scientists, environmental advocates, corporate CEOs, civic leaders, state workers, philanthropists, university professors, community  activists—all joined in a public/private partnership to help clean up the lakes.

Dave Lumley, CEO of Spectrum Brands, was an early member. So was Tyler Leeper, owner of Wingra Boats, Tom Groth of Thermo Fisher Scientific, Bob Sorge of the Madison Community Foundation, UW–Madison men’s head rowing coach Christopher Clark, Realtor Louisa Enz, Lloyd Eagan of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and many others.

Yet this is a true alliance. When you join CLA, no matter who you are or what you do for a living, you stand shoulder to shoulder with every other member, and you are committed to one specific goal: improving the quality of the water in our lakes.

“My whole professional career has been focused on water quality and helping people improve and reduce their impact on the water bodies in Dane County,“ says CLA member Kevin Connors, director
of the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department. “I’ve seen how the best efforts to really clean up water bodies have been through a community-led involvement, and now CLA is taking that effort to the next level.”

John Kothe, chair of the CLA board of directors and president of Kothe Real Estate Partners, says he joined the Alliance to help protect the lakes’ economic and quality-of-life value.

“One of the selling points of Madison is outdoor recreation,” Kothe says. “If our lakes are not clean, one of our biggest attractions turns from a positive to a negative, and that hurts not only the
marketability of Madison’s commercial real estate but also local companies’ ability to attract and retain world-class talent.”

CLA member Jacci Meier, an administrator with Baird & Associates, lauds the strength of the Alliance’s membership. “It’s such a good mix of all the right people and all the right organizations and groups,” she says. “There are so many facets to cleaning up our lakes that getting it all under one umbrella will help us make progress.”

The Road Map

When it comes to the lakes, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin agrees with Meier that involving all the stakeholders was a key move on the part of the Alliance.

“It is heartening when a group of private citizens sees a problem and organizes to tackle it,” he says. “Clean Lakes Alliance has gone much further, though, as the Alliance has recruited public officials, leading experts and business leaders who share their concern about our lakes.“

Soglin himself was one of those public officials and placed a representative from his office on the CLA Community Board of directors as a result. Together these stakeholders focus on a tiny nutrient—
phosphorus—as the biggest challenge to protecting and enhancing the quality of the water in our lakes.

In 2010, the city of Madison joined Dane County and the state Departments of Natural Resources and of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to complete an exhaustive assessment of the Yahara Watershed. Dubbed the Yahara CLEAN (Capital Area Environmental Assessment and Needs) Report, the study concluded that one of the top needs when it came to cleaning up the lakes was an “aggressive reduction in phosphorus and sediment loadings from all sources including farm fields and streets.”

CLA had its mission: to reduce phosphorus in the lakes by fifty percent. Why? Because phosphorus is the nutrient that overfeeds the algae in our lakes, which, combined with the sunlight of our summer months, leads to explosive growth in the algae nearly every summer. Those slicks that you see floating on top of the water, mucking up everything they touch? Those are called algae blooms and they make everything from recreational boating to subsistence fishing nearly impossible. 

“Much of what is wrong with the lakes really does come down to too much phosphorus,” says Heilman. “We’ve known this for years, for decades, actually. And unless we’re running out of time to get a handle on it, we could lose one of the biggest assets for our quality of life.”

So CLA commissioned a months-long engineering study to determine the best ways to achieve its goal. The report has just been completed and lists twenty-two actions—complete with a price tag for each—that can be taken to rid the lakes of as much phosphorus as possible.  “Now we have a road map,” says Heilman. “People can see plainly what can be done, what it will cost and what the economic benefits of doing it will be.”

Celebrating the Lakes

CLA started the year with a bang.

A February fundraising and community outreach party called Frozen Assets served as a celebration of our lakes in the winter. Complete with ice sculptures, an ice bar and snow-cone cocktails, the event drew a sold-out crowd. It also launched an auxiliary Friends of Clean Lakes group, and was so popular that next year’s date has already been booked.

“Frozen Assets was a great success, not just at raising needed funds but because so many people became involved with our mission to protect and enhance the lakes,” says James Tye, director of development and outreach for CLA.

It’s fitting that the Alliance was originally organized around one of the signature events of summer in Madison, the Clean Lakes Festival. Part splash-fest and part teach-in, the festival will again be held this year at Olin Park on the shores of Lake Monona on Saturday, August 18. Before that, CLA will participate in Aquapalooza, the boating extravaganza that’s held off Picnic Point in Lake Mendota in late July.

After summer winds down a major meeting of lake scientists is coming to Madison. The North American Lake Management Society International Symposium will be held November 6–9 at Monona Terrace. The conference is  coming  to Madison at the perfect time after years of progresson an action plan for  clean lakes. On the final day of the Symposium, Friday, November 9, local leaders will present to the community the urgent actions for cleaner lakes.

Mary Erpenbach is a freelance writer for Madison Magazine who lives along the Rock River.

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