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Friday, April 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Fog/Mist
The Paper

OPINION

Indifferent stewards
We aren't doing enough to improve Dane County's lakes

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Early in the morning, I'm at Lake Monona playing fetch with the dog. It's a great way to greet the day and experience the lake. Through the seasons I see it all: the spring melt, the clear water, the weeds, the algae, the putrification. And, oh boy, the foul smell of decay.

Some mornings, I yell (in vain) to keep the dog out of the water for fear she'll emerge stinking of dead fish or be poisoned by the blue-green algae that floats on the surface like something out of a fetid Louisiana bayou.

Such is life on the Madison lakes. It's those moments when I think how accepting we are of skanky lake quality. Reading David Mollenhoff's cover story week underlines what indifferent stewards we are of our community's great legacy.

Folks, we can do better.

Of course, lake quality is a complicated issue. Lake gunk is produced by high nutrient concentrations. The sources are runoff from farm fields upstream and the outflow from the 260 urban storm sewers that flush lawn fertilizer, construction detritus and street crud into Monona and Mendota after every rain.

It doesn't help matters that the task of making our lakes clean falls to a confusing mishmash of state, county and city agencies. And if you think the lakes are murky, try getting a read on them: By some measures, it can be argued, water quality is improving on the Madison lakes.

Certainly, I had no complaints on the Fourth of July when I was on a friend's boat motoring from Lake Monona down the channel to Lake Waubesa to eat pan-fried walleye and eggs at the Beach House in McFarland. Nothing could be better on a fine summery day.

But who's kidding who? Enjoying moments like these requires forgetting an awful lot of bad stuff. Like the high bacterial counts, malevolent blue-green algae, E. coli outbreaks and chemical spraying that periodically close Madison beaches.

"After a beach has been closed for two weeks, there's not exactly a big crowd of people waiting to be the first ones back in the water," observes Fritz Kroncke, the city's veteran recreation services supervisor.

Not surprisingly, city beach usage has been plummeting - from an estimated 283,055 swimmers in 1988 to 34,578 last year. The number of Madison beaches with lifeguards has been cut from 13 to 10, Kroncke notes, and lifeguard hours have been trimmed as well.

Sure, some of the decline in beach usage can be rightfully pinned on lifestyle changes. The ubiquity of air-conditioning, the ultra-programming of kids' free time, and the rise of water parks and swimming pools have all cut into beach attendance on a hot summer's day.

Still, you can't ignore the public's unease over water quality as a cause. Just as many Madison households have turned to bottled water in reaction to repeated problems with the city's wells, more and more parents seem uneasy about sending Junior and his friends down to the beach for fear that geese feces have turned the neighborhood swimming hole into a toilet bowl.

"The political arena says it's in favor of clean water, but it doesn't do anything about it," Kroncke says with only slight exaggeration. Editor's note: This article is adapted from a recent speech given by Mollenhoff, a Madison historian, at the First Annual Yahara Lakes Conference.

Yes, the county's phosphate ban helps. So does restricting manure spreading on frozen farm fields in winter, to curb runoff in the spring. And the annual "Take a Stake in the Lakes" campaign is spot on.

But that's only a start. There is no real urgency, no commitment to turn things around. We need more retention ponds, more rain gardens, more weed cutting. Smarter people than I can put together the action plan, perhaps using Mollenhoff's recommendations as a guide.

I think Kroncke is right when he says an air of resignation hangs over the issue of lake quality. Despite the lip service to making the lakes cleaner, we don't really expect it to happen.

"It annoys me that we don't do more," says Kroncke. "We just talk about doing more. In this community, we've got the smartest people and great resources, but nobody ever pulls them together to save the lakes."

Yup.

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