On this last weekend of Take a Stake in the Lakes Days, let’s consider the future of the Lake Wingra watershed and the opportunities and constraints of one of the watershed’s greatest needs–comprehensive and coordinated watershed-side planning.
But first, let me pause to define terms and the scope of this discussion. First, I’m talking about the watershed (not just Lake Wingra, nor just the uplands, nor just the wetlands, but the entire, connected and interrelated ecosystem we call the Lake Wingra watershed.)
Secondly, I’m talking about restoration ecology which is an attempt that seeks to heal ecological, social, and cultural systems.
But first, the need for action. Is there any question that today, after years of restoration work, community action, and the support of governmental agencies and citizens groups, that Lake Wingra and its watershed are in trouble?
The Lake Wingra watershed is subject to multiple environmental threats from human activities that flow across administrative and ecological boundaries. Typical of restorations and protected natural areas within the region, the beloved Arboretum for example, faces challenges resulting from “cross-boundary influences” such as land use changes, fragmented habitat, societal infrastructure (roads, utility corridors, and commercial and residential properties), storm water runoff laden with pollutants, and pest species in both aquatic and terrestrial habitat.
Human activities in the surface and ground-watersheds have: 1) drawn down the groundwater reserves; 2) created impermeable surfaces that decrease the amount of rainfall that infiltrates into the ground, 3) built-over or dried-up several historical springs; and 4) introduced pest species. Together, these changes have greatlyaltered the watershed’s hydrological and other processes. perhaps irreversibly See ArboretumLeaflet # 18.
Human activities have also resulted in other easily observed impacts. In Lake Wingra, they include algal blooms, fish advisories, and beaching closings; on land impacts include, buckthorn thickets, storm water, and degraded wildlife habitat. Human activities threaten the watershed with local species extirpations, loss of clean water, and reduced educational/scientific value, diminishing public enjoyment of the watershed’s natural treasures. These impacts are interrelated and “threaten local property values, and the health of our community” (Lake Wingra: A Vision for the future, 2009 page 5).
The solutions to these land care problems are not simple, and they will not be found by focusing only on lake issues or by focusing only on land issues. As the watershed’s problems are integrated, so too must the plans and solutions for its protection be integrated. Only if we see the watershed as a whole, as a continuum from upland to wetland, and only if we work in partnership with other stakeholders, will practical solutions be crafted. Achieving this will need an engaged, educated, and ecologically literate civic community.
In our rapidly changing world, restoration may prove to be a model of how to manage uncertainty, find the connections between social and ecological issues, and turn challenges into opportunities. For example, restoration is already a model of how to manage across watersheds and landscapes that are shifting from rural to urban, or are already urbanized. Restorationists can build on this experience and ability by developing detailed protocols for maintaining and managing resilient social-ecological systems in fragmented and densely populated landscapes. The restoration of urban and suburban settings requires not only the ability to manage things like plants and animals, storm water, the safe use of prescribed fire, and pesticides, and small, fragmented parcels; it also requires the skills to cultivate ecological literacy, encourage appropriate social and recreational uses of the restoration, and build community support (both financial and sweat equity) for the projects.
Proposed Principles of Ecological Restoration in the Lake Wingra Watershed
Ecological restoration and management as discussed here, is founded on a set of guiding ecological and restoration principles: (1) ecosystems are dynamic and driven by multiple internal processes, with a range of possible outcomes; (2) the environment is changing, largely due to anthropogenic forces, including global atmospheric change; (3) watershed restorations will be conducted in a highly degraded situation with novel conditions that may need novel approaches and novel species assemblages; (4) watershed-wide restorations will strive for management of biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and ecosystem services (plants as well as animals, soil, land, and water) ; (5) stressors must be reduced because ecosystems lose resilience under extreme stress; (6) there is a demonstrated need for watershed planning and outreach.
More on comprehensive watershed planning for the Lake Wingra Watershed in future posts.