August 12, 2009 5:13 PM
I was walking down State Street the other day and the harmonica guy called me aside to tell me that the lakes were "the worst ever" and that we should try clams. Clams, he claimed, would eat the seeds of the weeds and, just like that, problem solved.
Clams were a new one for me, but the sentiment from the harmonica guy is echoed by virtually every Madisonian about this time of year: the lakes are worse than ever and there's just gotta be a quick fix that the City of Madison can perform if only we tried harder.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of misunderstanding of the problem, and we won't really be able to make progress until we can focus our energies properly. So, here are three lake monsters we need to slay.
First, the lakes were not cleaner when you were young. Virtually every Madisonian who grew up here in the 1950's and 1960's believes in their heart that they swam in pristine lakes in their youth. Also, they got straight As, they never had a cavity, fermented malt beverages never passed their lips as minors, and they never once thought the Partridge Family was cool. But data (and their parents' recollections) probably indicate that most of those things just didn't happen. The truth is that water quality readings going back to the days when Marsh Shapiro ran a kids' television show instead of a bar, indicate that the lakes are cleaner now than they were then. In fact, we were still pumping sewage into the lakes in those days. Yes, we have more beach closings then we had back then, but that's because we have more testing, better science and less tolerance for dirty water then we had in the day. Trust me, you were swimming in the stuff, you were just blissfully ignorant. Data will support you in your claim that the Madison lakes were cleaner when you were young, but you'd have to be about 150 years old.
Second, the problem with the lakes is not primarily urban runoff. The truth is most of the problem comes from the farms north of Lake Mendota. We can plant all the rain gardens we want in the city (and we should - I have one in my own front yard), but that's literally a drop in the big lake bucket. If we want to clean up the lakes we have to cut off the nutrients flowing into them, and by far the biggest source of those nutrients is farm runoff, mostly manure. On this score, at least, there is progress to report. County Executive Kathleen Falk understands the problem and is doing something about it. She's hard at work on developing "manure digesters," which are sort of like sewage treatment plants for dung. It's the single best thing we can do to clean up the lakes.
Third, we cannot fix this problem overnight. Sometimes people like to say that cleaning the lakes is just a matter of "political will." But if any public official could claim credit for fixing the lakes, don't you think they'd have the job security of a federal judge or a bankruptcy lawyer? It's not so simple. The problem we've got is much bigger than just us. It's got to do not just with laws of people, but laws of chemistry and physics. Even if we stopped all phosphorous loading into the lakes tomorrow, there's still plenty of the stuff in soils, stream bottoms, and lake mud, and it will take time to change that. Having said all that there's reason to believe that with enough effort directed at the right projects we could see substantial progress in a couple of decades. So if you're one of those Baby Boomer kids you might get a chance to actually experience as a septuagenarian what you thought you were experiencing as a teenager.
Finally, the problem you solve is the problem you define. The issues we've got with the Madison lakes are not just about water clarity, pollution at beaches and algae, which get most of the press this time of year. We've also got issues with salt content (going up despite Madison's best efforts because our municipal neighbors won't touch the problem), temperature (going up and threatening to change the flora and fauna), and lake levels that are too high (damaging wetlands and causing flooding).
I have noticed over the years, both as an environmentalist and a mayor, that there is a real aversion, even sometimes among scientists, to lay out these issues in direct language. Some people seem terrified, for example, to even mention lake levels in polite company.
I'm not sure why that is. But I know one thing. We won't make much more progress until we confront the reality of the situation, talk about it openly and honestly, and go where good science leads us. Clams won't solve the problem nor will clamming up about it.