Writing contest showcase: Back to Lake Mendota

This week we are showcasing a few of the finalists of the Our Waters, Our Future writing contest, which sought short stories depicting positive futures for water and people in south-central Wisconsin. The winning story was published in Madison Magazine; read it online or in their June print edition. 

The views reflected in this story do not reflect the views of the Water Sustainability and Climate project nor the UW-Madison in general.

Back to Lake Mendota

Story by Kara Rogers

If you were to ask me what is my greatest love in life, I would give you two answers: family and music. The two are inseparable to me. They came to be that way in large part because of the lake that stretches out before me now, Lake Mendota.

Both my younger brother and I grew up playing the violin. We were trained classically, but traditional folk music, especially that hailing from Ireland, was easily our favorite to listen to and play. For hours in the summer, the two of us would sit by the lakeshore, scratching out bits of tunes from memory and forging a bond between music and nature that could never be broken. Wherever life took us in the years afterward, the lilt of Mendota traveled with us, forever in our hearts.

The year is now 2070, six decades since my earliest memories of the lake. It has been years since I last stepped foot upon its shores, life and work having taken me elsewhere, forcing me to move beyond my youth. But on this return visit, I am carried back in time more vividly than ever before. The lake—its clear water, the fish below and the birds above, its beauty and energy—surpass even my most glowing memories. I am overwhelmed with happiness.

Growing up, the lake’s future was uncertain. I understood that almost from the beginning of my life. I was four when I first ventured out onto the water. The year was 2010, and it was late summer. I sat in the front of a canoe beside my mom, my dad in back, guiding us as we slipped along.

I remember the way the warm sun played on the swirls of water formed by the movement of the paddles. The lake was deeply mysterious to me at that age. Broad areas of its bottom were carpeted with grassy weeds, and little green specks floated in it, in some places so thick I could not see what lay below. I was mesmerized. The specks, I learned later, were algae, an abundance of which wasn’t good.

In the summers that followed, we spent more and more time on the lake. When we were old enough, my brother and I would go down to the water on our own, lured by the promise of adventure. We learned to kayak and sail, and when the water was more or less clear, we would go for a swim.

We pretended we were explorers, traveling all around the shores, studying rocks, trees, fish, and birds. Along the course of our expeditions, we routinely stopped to admire the sleek sailboats bobbing obediently at their moorings, and we peered into the manicured lakeside yards, dreaming of what it would be like to have our own private dock.

But it was those hours in the summertime sitting just the two of us on an old stone bench beneath the low trees that were especially memorable. There, our imaginations and our bows and fiddles would run wild. We would make up stories about people and things that would go by on the water. Sailors trapped in a storm, giant fish lurking out in the deep. Musically, we considered our spot by the lake magical. If we stayed long enough and struck just the right notes, whole tunes we’d heard on CDs or played by our parents or family friends would come to us. We also made up tunes. “Down to Lake Michigan” was a favorite. For whatever reason, it never occurred to us to compose a tune about the lake that lapped inches from our toes.

Unfortunately, each year, the lake looked worse for the wear, and increasingly we found ourselves confined to the bench under the trees, witnessing the deterioration of the idyllic place we loved. We were prevented from going into the water by outbreaks of bacteria and blooms of toxic algae, the result of nutrient-dense runoff and other pollution overwhelming the lake ecosystem.

The water, plants, and animals were being poisoned. The lake and its life-giving qualities, especially the habitat it supplied, were on the verge of collapse. And it was more than just our lake, the entire watershed was threatened.

It was through school field trips and family outings that I came to understand that our lake was part of something larger and more significant: a natural drainage basin known as the Yahara watershed. The watershed sprawls across some 359 square miles of southern Wisconsin and consists of four major lakes, connected like beads on a string by the Yahara River. The largest of the lakes is Mendota, which lies on the northern side of the isthmus on which the city of Madison was built. Across the isthmus is Lake Monona. Further south lies Lake Waubesa, which is connected to Lake Kegonsa by a shallow mud pool. Yahara, Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, Kegonsa – if you listen closely, you can hear the music in the words, an old melody derived from the language of the Chippewa and Ottawa.

The watershed is remarkably ancient. A river and valleys were in existence in the region before the last glaciation roughly 25,000 years ago. The slow infiltration of glacial ice, which dragged rocks and other debris along beneath it, carved the Yahara river valley deep into the land. By 10,000 years ago, after the glacier had retreated, large lakes had formed, dammed by thick deposits of glacial till and filled by meltwater. Later, the dams gave way and water levels decreased, leaving behind the lakes that I had come to know.

Except that there was one other factor: the arrival of humans in the Yahara watershed. Initially, human impacts probably were insignificant, though that quickly changed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when people permanently altered fundamental physical aspects of the landscape by constructing dams, cutting into the underlying bedrock, and moving glacial debris, including sand and gravel. In the process of growing urban areas within and around the watershed, regions of pristine aquatic habitat were drained and polluted.

Nutrients in urban and agricultural runoff became the major pollutants in the watershed. The worst offender was phosphorous, most of which came from the north, trickling into runoff and seeping into groundwater from manure spread across agricultural fields. It accumulated in the lakes, feeding algal blooms that shaded aquatic plants and depleted oxygen levels, ultimately killing native plants and fish. Such lifeless areas were known simply as dead zones.

Those problems were compounded by sediment runoff from farms, construction sites, and urban areas. Soil particles and tiny bits of plastic and metal polluted the lake and created turbid conditions. Settling into gaps between rocks, sediment choked out habitat for aquatic insects, and when suspended in the water, it blocked sunlight and gave a distinct growth advantage to algae.

Over time, as ever-growing volumes of sediment and manure-tainted runoff permeated the watershed, the future of the lakes and their native inhabitants became increasingly bleak. The only way to turn things around was for the people who lived in and around the watershed to work together to find a solution.

I wanted to be a part of that process, but college took me away. The music stayed with me, though, and certain tunes especially evoked the powerful bond that remained between my brother and I, and between the lake and us. In those moments, I often was compelled to call home to see how things were going.

Stories of progress were relayed only sporadically, leaving me in suspense. Still, at the time, the news I received put my worries at ease. Ordinary citizens were making a difference. People began mulching leaves in their yards, rather than letting them decompose on streets and sidewalks, where leached nutrients washed into storm drains that emptied into the watershed. More people were also using rain barrels to capture runoff from the roofs of their houses, collectively preventing large volumes of water from flowing into storm drains, which further helped cut back on lake pollution.

The Metropolitan Sewerage District began working with people in the community to reduce the use of road salt in winter. Chloride from the salt was a growing source of lake pollution in my youth. Concentrations eventually reached alarming levels, harming plants and animals, contaminating drinking water, and finally stirring people into action. There was no way to remove chloride from the water, leaving road salt reduction the primary solution.

People were helping in other ways too. Neighbors down the street from us organized a nonprofit urban conservation group and formed a partnership with a regional conservation program to advocate for greater focus on pollution from agricultural lands. For years, officials had been concerned with point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants, which led to vast improvements on wastewater regulations. But agricultural pollution was the real concern in Wisconsin. As much as seventy percent of phosphorus runoff in the watershed came from agricultural facilities, many of which were exempt from the regulations of the Clean Water Act.

Kegonsa, the last in the watershed’s chain of lakes, was especially hard-hit by phosphorous.

Increasing numbers of dairy farmers, aware of the problem and knowing that they were key to the solution, took action. Farmers in the region had long struggled to get manure digesters running properly. The digesters were designed to remove large quantities of phosphorous from manure, reducing the amount of the nutrient that made its way into the watershed.

After much trial and error, which led to refinements in digestion systems and methane storage, the risk of leaks and explosions decreased dramatically, and the digesters became more efficient for energy production. Although utilities buyback rates were low, the digesters had other incentives for farmers. The phosphorous-rich solids could be dried to make bedding for livestock, and more effective nutrient-recovery systems allowed for the removal of water from digested liquid manure, saving on costs associated with the transport of liquids back to the field.

Other problems would take longer to resolve, such as ridding the watershed of invasive species. An invader of major concern was the spiny waterflea, which caused significant disruptions in the native food chain. At one time, Mendota hosted the highest density of spiny waterfleas of any lake worldwide. Only following the rebound of native fish populations did their numbers finally diminish.

The change that has taken place in the watershed is a striking illustration of the degree to which humans can control nature. I am not afraid of that power. Rather, it gives me hope, because with it, we can right our environmental wrongs.

In many respects, it was the small things that mattered for the Yahara watershed—the individual acts of each of the nearly 400,000 people living in the region. Whether the farmer who opted in on a cooperative manure digester or the neighbor who refrained from using fertilizers on his lawn, together a group of people chose to make a positive difference. And they succeeded. Because of their forethought and awareness, I am able to stand at the shores of Mendota, its water clearer and more full of life than I have ever known.

Walking up the path to the old bench, I realize ever more how much a fixture in my life that this place has been. I think of my brother and our music, and almost instantly a new tune starts to come to me. After a while, I have it from beginning to end, and I have a name for it. It will be called “Back to Lake Mendota.”

Kara Rogers is the author of The Quiet Extinction: Stories of North America’s Rare and Threatened Plants (2015, The University of Arizona Press) and Out of Nature: Why Drugs from Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity (2012, The University of Arizona Press). She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and is the senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica. She lives in Madison, WI with her husband and her two young, spirited boys.


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