Protecting the city’s greatest assets

The fight to reduce phosphorus in lakes continues
Protecting the city’s greatest assets
Photo by Nikki Hansen

As Madison’s population has steadily grown, land use has intensified and contributed to the pollution of the city’s greatest assets: its lakes. Concern for the cleanliness of Madison’s lakes has also increased. The challenges, however, have not yet been met.

John Morgan reported in his February 2005 story “Lake Luster” that the state-funded Lake Mendota Priority Watershed Project, started in 1978 (again, 40 years ago), called for a 50-percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Mendota by 2008, whether the source was fertilizer applied to farmland, manicured yards or construction sites.

Less phosphorus in stormwater runoff means fewer unsightly, smelly and often toxic algae blooms on the lakes. Translation: Fewer days with beaches closed to swimmers and less milfoil wrapped around boat propellers. Less phosphorus also means improved water quality, habitat made up of native plants and healthier populations of birds and fish.

“Every day, erosion dumps seven truckloads of dirt into Lake Mendota and its tributaries. Thousands of pounds of leaf litter and grass clippings and auto fluids wash from our yards and roads into the lakes. Accidents happen, but at some point we must acknowledge a basic pathology: We are vandals, all.”

— “Troubled Waters” by Erik Ness, August 1998

In 2004, a countywide ban on phosphorus-based lawn fertilizers went into effect. And a “Love Your Lakes, Don’t Leaf Them” campaign was launched the following fall to discourage homeowners from raking their leaves into street gutters, from which they find their way into the lakes. That same year, then-Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk signed an ordinance limiting phosphorus usage in honor of Brian Howell, the late former editor of Madison Magazine who had been an advocate for cleaning up the lakes.

Clean Lakes Alliance, a nonprofit formed in 2009, adopted the same goal for the entire Yahara Watershed — a 50-percent reduction in phosphorus loading of the lakes — but this time to be accomplished by 2018.

“One of the selling points of Madison is outdoor recreation. If our lakes are not clean, one of our biggest attractions turns from a positive to a negative, and that hurts not only the marketability of Madison’s commercial real estate but also local companies’ ability to attract and retain world-class talent.”

–John Kothe, president of Kothe Real Estate Partners, then-chair of the Clean Lakes Alliance board of directors, July 2012

We’re not there yet. Two years ago, as reported in the June 2017 issue of the magazine, the alliance recorded a diversion of 13,600 pounds of phosphorus from the lakes (1 pound of phosphorus can result in 500 pounds of algae), representing a 29-percent reduction. In 2012, the alliance recommitted itself to a 50-percent reduction by 2025.

For a few years starting in 2012, Madison Magazine partnered with Clean Lakes Alliance to publish annual report cards on the state of the Yahara Watershed. The alliance continues to publish its annual reports at

For more on the 40th Anniversary of Madison Magazine, click here.