The great lakes debate
In his column on Lake Mendota's water levels ("Getting Too High on the Lake," 6/29/07), Bill Lueders mischaracterizes the debate as a battle between environmentalists and "rich guys with big boats." Perhaps he intended to be provocative, but in so doing he demeans a necessary community discussion over flooding and the urgent need to modernize our storm-water management practices.
Lueders' mischaracterization enables those who prefer to use our lakes as dumping grounds using a centuries-old practice to rush rainwater (and associated debris) to our lakes rather than using modern techniques that infiltrate rain where it falls.
Lueders is correct in stating that the level of Lake Mendota was raised approximately a century ago. Would the same choice be made again today? Perhaps not, but returning to the old lake level is neither feasible nor preferable. Drawing down our lakes and allowing the pool level to swing over a wide range of elevations would be harmful to the lake environment, connected wetlands, the fishery, and the infrastructure constructed over the past 100 years.
Many of those seeking to lower Lake Mendota's level are driven not by the desire to restore an ecosystem, but by a desire to use the increased capacity of a lower lake as a giant storm-water detention basin.
In 2001, the state Department of Natural Resources established a Yahara Lakes Advisory Group to study our lakes and provide recommendations on lakes management. Composed of representatives of local and state government, the university, fishing groups, property owners and others interested in our lakes, the advisory group concluded that the current lake-level rules are appropriate and necessary.
The advisory group noted that the greatest threats to the lakes were from storm-water mismanagement and the neglect of the lake infrastructure and outlet channels.
The increased risks of flooding are the result of two major issues. 1) Storm-water runoff has increased by 30%, and 2) the outlet channels have deteriorated to the extent that they carry 30% less water due to weeds, silt and manmade obstacles.
The solution is to keep rainwater where it falls, restore our wetlands and restore the lake outlet channels. The same city of Madison engineering department that is calling for the decrease in the lake levels is responsible for the rapid discharge of storm water into the lakes causing the increased flooding risk. In addition to the water, this runoff contains chemicals, soil and nutrients that affect the water quality.
The restrictions in the outlet channels are known. If these blockages are opened, the excess water will leave the system, greatly reducing the flood risk.
Lake Mendota is a precious and finite natural resource that should not be sacrificed for the convenience of dumping mismanaged storm water. Implementing another bad policy (lowering the lake level) to correct past bad policy is not a solution. It just defers the problem to a future date.
Let's do the right thing and focus on the problem, not just settle for an easy solution.
Michael Gerner, president
Yahara Lakes Association
Michael Gerner suggests that if blockages in the Yahara Lakes outlet channels are opened, excess water will leave the system. His letter also implies that his belief about reducing Lake Mendota's lake level is shared by most members of the Yahara Lakes Association. I doubt this is correct. He neglects to tell you that YLA members were not polled on this contentious issue. Mike lives on Lake Mendota.
Downstream from Mike, things are different, exemplified by the several floods in the last 10 years. High levels on Lake Mendota result in Dane County being unable to adequately manage the levels of Lake Monona (on which I live) and the other lower Yahara lakes during recurrent heavy rainstorms.
Mike certainly didn't ask the residents of Belle Isle, who can graphically explain the flooding problems caused when Mendota water must be quickly released. "Clearing blockages" as a solution is nave. Any hydrologist can explain that the real problem is the drop of about 1-1/2 feet in 4-1/2 miles between lakes Waubesa and Kegonsa.
"Blockages" exist, but expecting water to move quickly over a long distance with only a slight drop in elevation contravenes the laws of physics.
There are permanent partial solutions, and Mike explains them well. An excellent example is the town of Westport's ordinance requiring infiltration by a 0% release of storm water from new developments. But Dane and Columbia counties have yet to adopt even Westport's solution, and may never do so even if they can.
Until they do, more and more of the Yahara watershed will be covered with impervious surfaces, and storm water will move quickly into the Yahara lakes, causing downstream flooding.
In reality, Mike's letter is just a plea to continue the operating order for Lake Mendota to facilitate boating there, and ignores the significant damage flooding causes to others downstream. The reality is, we're all in this together.
Charles P. Dykman
Both Marc Eisen ("Indifferent Stewards," 7/20/07) and David Mollenhoff ("Our City, Our Lakes," 7/20/07) express frustration over the lack of decisive action to clean up our lakes.
Here's a different proposal: If indeed a significant part of the lake pollution is due to farming, then let us pay farmers not to farm in the Mendota/Monona lakes watershed, or at least give them an incentive to use sustainable practices.
Michael von Schneidemesser
I think Madisonians tend to view the lakes mostly as a recreational resource and fail to see them as part of the ecosystem. If you don't believe me, then go ahead and swim in the toxic algae, walk amongst the ciggie butts and glass, and eat the mercury-laced fish.
You suburbanites aren't off the hook, since you come downtown to hang at the Union and thus help create the car- and-asphalt culture that causes polluted groundwater to reach the lakes. Plus you captain gas-guzzling boats and have dreams of a weed-free lawn. Want to help keep our lakes clean? Stop being selfish and clean up your choices!