Novel Ecosystems and Restoration Targets

Why all the fuss  about the Secret Pond storm water pond project in the UW-Madison Arboretum?

I can explain why this restoration ecologist was disappointed in the outcome–but first, some background.

The controversy over the Secret Pond storm water pond project and whether it should, and could, be a restoration or an engineering project (or a combination) is symptomatic of the issues facing restorationists in urban areas everywhere; especially where storm water management is the main concern.

The Challenge of Restoration Targets

Although the term “restoration” implies that we are “putting something back”, modern restoration ecology looks to the near-distant past primarily because our understanding of natural communities comes, in part, from historic records and experience.  But, as restoration ecologists, dealing with novel ecosystems in an urban environment, our goal is not to duplicate the past–one cannot return an ecosystem to what it looked like a decade ago, let alone a hundred years ago–but rather to create for the sustainable future. In other words, to give the conditions under which the products of environmental and evolutionary history–plants, animals, communities, and ecosystems–can continue to thrive into the future.

This is a difficult challenge for those of us who are trying to create a sustainable future for novel ecosystems–a grouping of plants and animals that have never existed before in a given setting.

Novel ecosystems happen because of human impacts, and can result in  what my colleague Mrill Ingram calls a New, Negotiated Landscape (Ingram, 2010, pp. 1-2).  She writes in Ecological Restoration, of which she is the former editor:

“The factors that play a definitive role in how ecological restoration happens include new communities of species and changed ecological processes, but also the ongoing prevalence of human management–a kind of negotiation between humans but also between plant and animal species as well as between humans and other species.”

Arboretum as Novel Ecosystem

Much of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum is a novel ecosystem and a negotiated landscape.  Because of past and ongoing anthropogenic influences, even its restored prairies include new communities of species and fundamentally changed ecological processes such as hydrology and fire.   For example, the revered and renowned Curtis Prairie has plants such as reed canary grass, leafy spurge, hybrid cattail, plus two storm water ponds–features that were not a historic part of the prairie.  Our restoration management efforts must now be conducted (or negotiated) in a supercharged context involving research and outreach goals, neighbor relations, and regulations for storm water, smoke dispersal, air quality, and endangered species.  In addition, Arboretum managers must negotiate a whole host of restoration issues that include restoration outcomes themselves, anthropogenic impacts such as isolating and filling wetlands, draining of Gardner Marsh, visitor impacts, pest species and storm water.

Establishing, communicating, and achieving set restoration targets are challenges. My colleagues Mrill Ingram and Mark Wegener and myself (2010) outlined these challenges in a poster for the Annual Meeting of the Midwest/Great Lakes Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration, in Madison, WI.

Negotiating Storm Water

Storm water negotiations are relevant to the Secret Pond storm water project as Ingram, Wegener and Glass (2010) point out: “because the hydrological regime around the UW Arboretum has been fundamentally altered from one of mostly infiltrated rainfall to one of  mostly storm water runoff.   In trying to manage the impacts of storm water on Arboretum lands managers contend with the practices of thousands of urban neighbors whose property drains to the Arboretum.  Invasive species, such as reed canary grass, thrive in the nutrient-rich runoff.  Storm water and reed canary grass together hinder the effective use of prescribed fire in the canary grass patches.”

For another example, “the West Wingra Marsh (site of the Secret Pond storm water project) has received storm water of increasing strength and declining water quality for decades.  The degraded nature of this area makes it easy for people to continue to make it a dumping ground and the Arboretum has to negotiate constantly to support it as a target for restoration.” (Ingram, Wegener and Glass, 2010)

“As a novel ecosystem, it has no easily set restoration target, which handicaps Arboretum managers in discussions with engineers who come to meetings ready with plans and set standards.” (Ingram, Wegener and Glass, 2010).  In this case however, the Arboretum’s Adaptive Restoration Task Force (ARTF) presented the storm water planners with a restoration plan to minimize grading and filling and to restore ecosystem services (see ManitouMinimizeFill).   The plan had two options for negotiation:

Option 1:  Minimize grading and filling and maximize restoration of ecosystem services. (The ARTF basically sought to restore a connection between Manitou Stream and its floodplain to encourage groundwater recharge.)

Option 2:  An alternative storm water restoration design, which considered the trade-off of combining a stormwater retention pond upstream and a restored stream the rest of the way to the marsh.

A large part of the Arboretum restoration goal was to reconnect the Manitou Stream with its floodplain, restore meanders to the straightened channel to create habitat for aquatic wildlife, and to reverse the process of de-watering of the former wetland by encouraging ground water recharge all along the stream.  The restoration plan sought to make improvements that would begin to aid  infiltration of precipitation to the groundwater–groundwater recharge.  Storm water planners on the other hand try to limit the interactions of surface and groundwater.

As we learned, state and federal storm water management goals, storm water engineering and “best management practices” can prevent the use of more flexible bioengineering solutions.

So, ultimately the storm water pond plan adopted by the City of Madison and University of Wisconsin Facilities Planning and Management (FP &M) went with traditional storm water management solutions which was a storm water pond, an armored channel, and no restoration (although some native plants were included as a token concession).  This storm water solution in effect denied the Arboretum its last, best hope to restore ecosystem services to this area.  No one denies that the City of Madison must better manage its storm water to minimize impacts on the uplands, wetlands, and Lake Wingra.  But, as other municipalities (Twin Cities, and Annapolis Maryland for example have discovered it is possible–and more efficient and effective–to manage storm water through restoration ecology.

Aldo Leopold, as a founder of the Arboretum, would be outraged that the birthplace of restoration ecology was required to surrender to yet another storm water pond under the weight of an intergovernmental agreement  IGA Final with Signaturest, to which no Arboretum official was a signatory.

This, in part,  is what all the fuss is about.



Ingram, M. 2010. OCBILS, YODFELS, and NENEGOLS: Ecological Restoration in New and Negotiated Landscapes.  Ecological Restoration 28 (1): 1-2

Ingram, M.,  M Wegener, and S. Glass. 2010. Incorporating Human Impacts into Restoration Planning at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.  Annual Meeting Midwest/Great Lakes Chapter of SER. Madison, WI.

About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
This entry was posted in Ecological restoration, Lake Wingra, Negotiated landscape, Novel Ecosystems, Pest species, Restoration ecology, Storm water and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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