Madison's Getting Serious About Cleaning the Lakes

There's a new sense of urgency in clean-up efforts

Ask a Madisonian about the lakes and the reaction is almost always a mixture of joy and pain. It’s often a visceral, deep-in-the-gut feeling because our lives quite literally revolve around them. It was an intentional decision to build the city on an isthmus, and for the water that surrounds us to serve as a socioeconomic tool for growth, development and quality of life. In fact, it wasn’t even our idea. Native Americans, Madison’s first human inhabitants, flocked to the Four Lakes area for similar cultural and aesthetic reasons. The lakes are astoundingly beautiful, and full of enrichment.

But our relationship with the lakes is, and has always been, a complicated one. “One of the great paradoxes of Madison history is that Madisonians paid so little attention to the recreational value of their lakes for so long,” writes historian David Mollenhoff in Madison—A History of the Formative Years. For reasons of modesty and civility—it was, after all, the Victorian era—swimming was illegal until 1879, more than two decades after the city was incorporated. It took nearly a century more—till 1971—to stop the sewage discharge into Lake Mendota (ending the practice once and for all), which sits near the top of the Yahara Watershed. And despite the fact that we have the science and the know-how to save our lakes from the damage phosphorous has been doing to them since the dawn of fertilizer, we simply haven’t gotten the job done.

Now, another concerted effort is mounting, and I think you should pay close attention to what’s going to happen over the next year or so. It all started back in 2005, when the North American Lake Management Society held its annual conference in Madison and asked Mollenhoff to deliver a speech to its audience. “Few cities in the world provide such a revealing case study about the relationship between people and water as Madison, Wisconsin,” said Mollenhoff, who went on to list the ten most important historical relationships between people and water beginning with the decision to locate the state capital here and ending with the city’s recognition that the lakes were compromised and becoming a national leader in sewage treatment and lake management. And that mouthful is just the beginning of Mollenhoff’s stirring look back and then forward into the future. He concluded by offering up eight qualities we should look for in a reinvigorated attempt to finally, after all these years, clean … up … the … lakes. And wrapped it all up in a nice, neat bow with this:

“We live in an exciting time, a time when lake scientists have the technical knowledge to achieve long-felt dreams, beautiful lakes. Perhaps the time has come to link this technical prowess to the power of an old-fashioned, time-tested tool, the practical vision.”

Mollenhoff’s speech was so damn good he gave it again, this time in 2007 to a local audience at the first Yahara Lakes Conference. That led to a killer—and I mean that in both the best and worst ways—report-slash-memorandum of understanding between the city, the county and the state on a plan of action. Except the plan, called Yahara CLEAN and available at, is so big and bold that it doesn’t pass Mollenhoff’s key litmus test. In typical Madison fashion, it ain’t too practical.

Meanwhile and serendipitously, the Clean Lakes Festival, organized by the Mad-City Ski Team and brought to you by local businesses, raised enough money and awareness over the last few years to incorporate itself into a new nonprofit called the Clean Lakes Alliance. With a strong sense of urgency coupled with an informed, methodical game plan, CLA is building on the mountains of research, monetary resources and sweat equity of previous water quality projects with a public-private mission to fund, educate and promote a healthy Yahara chain of lakes and rivers (remember: our watershed begins way upstream, in Columbia County).

It’s just a start, but the renewed level of interest and excitement by a business community (and blessed by civic stakeholders) that’s hip to clean lakes as a quality of life issue for its workforce and its future is, in a word, astonishing. No, wait. It’s practical.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. Comments and letters can be sent to 7025 Raymond Rd., Madison, WI 53719, or Letters we publish may be edited for space and clarity.

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