It's getting to be pea soup season again in Madison's lakes. Limnology experts like the UW's Steve Carpenter are predicting an especially bad year. Here are a few ideas on what we might do about it.
First, it's important to understand that there's been a recent shift among experts on how much progress we can expect in our lifetimes. For years, I tried to restrain expectations by echoing what I heard from scientists about how tough it was going to be to turn things around. They talked in terms of generations of slow progress, even with the most aggressive measures.
Then they came up with a new theory. If the lakes' best years were ones with little runoff from precipitation, isn't there a way that we could mimic those conditions and produce results much faster? Well, last summer was cause for reevaluation of the new theory, because lake conditions were relatively good despite a very wet spring and summer. Still, there may be hope that with new commitments and initiatives to addressing the problem, we may see noticeable change in our lifetimes.
Whatever we do, whether it's long-term phosphorus pollution control like the digesters or short-term strategies to simulate low precipitation conditions, the bottom line is to control phosphorus runoff into the lakes.
People who know much more about the issue than I do continue to study the problem. They'll come up with more ideas, but I'd suggest we do three things in the near term.
First, build the manure digesters and a system for collecting agricultural animal waste that former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk started under her term and new exec Joe Parisi remains committed to. Most of this phosphorus problem comes from farms north of Lake Mendota, while very little of the pollutants originate in the city of Madison.
Second, strengthen the Dane County Lakes & Watershed Commission. The organization was started about a decade and a half ago with the idea that we need to manage water on a watershed basis, as it flows without regard to artificial municipal boundaries. But the commission has been hamstrung by tight budgets and a lack of authority to really get communities to pull in the same direction.
For example, I was always frustrated that only Madison was working to restrict street salt use as other communities in the watershed undercut our efforts by piling it on every winter. The commission should be able to adopt uniform salt reduction standards for all communities that contribute to the problem of salt runoff into our lakes. And that's just for starters.
Third, make the financial commitment to get the job done. One expert I know estimates that we could have noticeably cleaner lakes for a cost of about $30 million. If we spread that out over, say, 10 years, that's only $3 million a year to accomplish a long-sought regional goal. Seems like a small price to pay.