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Clean Lakes Breakthrough

A Dane County Success Story


Research done by our Dane County staff led to a 2017 budget proposal to fund an innovative effort to remove phosphorus-laden sediment from the bottoms of 33 miles of streams in the Lake Mendota watershed. In tandem with additional conservation efforts done in cooperation with farmers, it’s projected Parisi’s $12 million initiative will eliminate 870,000 pounds of algae-growing phosphorus. This work will lead to clean lakes decades sooner.

“Because of this breakthrough, we will see clean lakes in our life time.”
Joe Parisi - Dane County Executive
Joe Parisi; Dane County Executive


Two years ago, I put $60,000 in the county budget to analyze the water quality and phosphorus content of the miles of streams and creeks that feed into Lake Mendota. A year of research later, the findings are stark: if we don’t remove accrued sludge that sits at the bottom of these streams it will take 99 years to see a 50% reduction in phosphorus that finds its way into our lakes. Even more concerning, the roadmap to cleaning our lakes completed a couple of years ago (Yahara CLEAN) suggests it will cost $78-milllion to achieve that 50% reduction.

No one wants to wait 100 years for clean lakes.

Our community has long cited that 50% reduction as the goal in our lake clean-up. We can’t accomplish it in this lifetime without getting into these waterways and removing the continuous source of phosphorus that seeps daily into our waters. Spending $78 million and having to wait 99 years to see the benefits of those investments isn’t the answer.

Testing shows the phosphorus concentration in this stream sediment is seven times more potent than what’s found on crop fields in the Mendota watershed! There are more than 5,600 acres in the watershed. County staff and farmers have implemented conservation and runoff reduction practices on 90% of those lands. Soil testing shows farmlands in the watershed are on average already two times better than the state standards on phosphorus concentration.

This data says what’s been done to date has worked at reducing what nutrients go on the land, when they’re applied, and most importantly, keeping them there. We’re making progress. We can’t accomplish our goal without getting at what’s already in the water.

Joe Parisi's signature. Dane County Executive
"Harvesting phosphorus laden silt from our streams is an important piece to the water quality puzzle. If we don't strategically remove this legacy phosphorus from our stream, we will never be able to meet our water quality goals and fully capitalize on the phosphorus reducing practices that the farmers are implementing on their farms."
- Jeff Endres, Farmer and Chair of Yahara Pride Farms Conservation Board.
Map of Yahara River Watershed

By the numbers:

$12 million over 4 years to clean 33 miles of streams which will remove 870,000 pounds of phosphorus from our lakes. Every pound of phosphorous creates 500 pounds of algae which makes our lakes and beaches green and slimy.

Man measuring river sediment

Wisconsin State Journal Editorial Board

“Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s plan to vacuum the polluted sediment from the bottom of streams deserves support from the County Board and public. The Madison region has made a lot of progress at protecting its lakes in recent years. But the miles of sludge that have sat at the bottom of streambeds can’t be ignored. The County Board should approve Parisi’s request to clean the streams. A century of foul sediment won’t disappear in our lifetimes on its own.”
For a link to full editorial click here.

Joe Parisi shows leadership on lake protection

James Tye, Clean Lakes Alliance Executive Director
“Always a supporter of lakes and the Clean Lakes Alliance, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi is proposing a giant step forward for clean and clear lakes. In his 2017 budget, Parisi is proposing a $12 million, five-year plan to remove phosphorus-laden legacy sediment in over 30 miles of creeks that feed our lakes. Clean Lakes Alliance is very excited about the next five years, and what they could hold for lake improvement thanks to Parisi’s leadership. Whether it’s the swimmer or angler looking for clear water or good fishing, or a company looking to sell the beauty of Madison to a top recruit from out of state, as a community, we all stand to benefit from clean and healthy lakes.”
For a link to the full column click here.

Clean lakes plan deserves support

Brian H. Potts, Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District Commissioner
“Dane County Executive Joe Parisi recently proposed spending $3 million per year for at least the next four years to hydraulically dredge phosphorus out of more than 30 miles of streams that feed Madison’s lakes. This project is exactly the kind of forward thinking that the adaptive management plan needs to be successful. The County Board should approve and fully fund Parisi’s dredging plan.”
For a link to the full column click here.

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