Aldo Leopold and the Lake Wingra Watershed

Aldo Leopold knew the Lake Wingra Watershed like the back of his hand.   One wonders what he would say about its condition today?

Leopold lived just outside the Lake Wingra Watershed boundary on Van Hise Avenue near West High School (Regent Street is the northern watershed boundary at that point).  He knew the watershed both from his walks to his office in the UW-Madison Arboretum, and from his field work in the Arboretum as a co-founder and its first director of animal research.

On a typical walk to work Leopold probably strolled along Glenway Street to Monroe Street on his way to his Arboretum office.  As he descended Glenway he would have stopped to admire the grand view of Lake Wingra and its vast marshes to the east.  Leopold probably could have then walked past the site of the current Marion Dunn Stormwater Pond as he turned south on Monroe Street towards the present day Nakoma Road and Odana Road intersections.  Or, just as likely, Leopold would have forged his own path through the marshes and woodlands surrounding Lake Wingra, making observations and gathering data as he went, on his way to Arboretum Headquarters in the present day Arboretum “Lab Building.”

Leopold and The Arboretum

Leopold’s leadership at the Arboretum greatly influenced the watershed’s history as it did modern-day environmental and conservation thinking.  His work at the Arboretum not  only launched what would become the profession of restoration ecology that we know today but also inspired his writings and restoration work at The Shack, near Baraboo, Wisconsin.

Today, the Arboretum is known as the birth place of restoration ecology because of the foresight of Leopold and his co-founders, William G. Longenecker and Norman Fassett, and of those that came after, including Curtis, Greene, Cottam, Kline, and Jordan, among others.  The point is that the Arboretum has not only local importance, but also global significance.  This for several reasons:  1) because it is the birthplace of a global environmental movement; 2) because of Leopold’s legacy; 3) as a restored landscape; and 4) because the Arboretum practices restoration as a way to nurture a beneficial relationship between humans and the rest of nature.

What Would Aldo Say About Alum Application?

Leopold’s writings might have something to tell us today about how we should be treating this landscape and how we are honoring the legacy he left us.  It would be instructive and  appropriate then to ask what guidance Aldo Leopold would give to the City of Madison Engineering Division about its proposed alum application to Marion Dunn Pond in the UW-Madison Arboretum.   Would Aldo Leopold approve of the dumping of sediment-laden storm water and now alum into the Arboretum—the birthplace of restoration ecology—as a good example of living the land ethic that he taught?  He would probably not approve.   What would Leopold say about the City’s current use of the Arboretum as a stormwater dumping ground and stormwater credit bank?  Stop it!, he would likely say.

The Alum Proposal

As the City of Madison rightfully says, it has “requirements, from the EPA/WDNR, to reduce our stormwater discharges of Total Suspended Solids (TSS) and Phosphorus (P) to the levels mandated in the Rock River TMDL (total maximum daily load).”

In compliance, the City of Madison Engineering Division proposes a demonstration project, “to test the effectiveness of using Aluminum Sulfate, commonly called alum, in an urban stormwater pond as one means to reduce our discharge of these pollutants to our lakes and rivers and to meet the mandates of the TMDL.”

The City says of its alum application proposal:

“Alum has been used in the treatment of water and wastewater for over 100 years. In addition, Alum has been recognized since the 1970s for control of nutrients in many natural lakes, including several in Wisconsin. Alum treatment of urban stormwater has been an established stormwater quality retrofit option primarily in the Southeast part of the country but more recently in the Midwest including projects in Minnesota and Indiana. The potential value of alum treatment for water quality improvements has been identified as one potential measure for control of phosphorus inputs to the Yahara Chain of Lakes in Dane County.”

“Liquid alum will be pumped into the stormwater based on the flow rate in the incoming pipe. The Alum generates a “floc” or larger particle that binds and removes phosphorus and other nutrients from the water column. An additional chemical will likely be injected at the same time to control the pH of the incoming stormwater allowing the Alum to work more effectively. The alum and pH control agent will be stored in tanks located within a temporary shelter.

Treating a Symptom of a Problem, Not the Problem

This is an end-of-the-pipe treatment.  It is not a solution.  There are several flaws with  “end-of-the-pipe approaches”.  First, end-of-pipe-treatments are like sweeping dirt under the rug and thus are really an avoidance and denial strategy.  In this way, these approaches deal with a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. In this case, poor water quality is a symptom of poor treatment of the land upstream of the storm water pond.

Second, waiting until the trouble flows downhill to deal with it is not a strategy that directs resources toward addressing the upstream source (s) of the problem.  And thirdly, using an end-of-pipe treatment  “. . .would likely draw both resources and attention away from . . . more sustainable and longer-lasting approaches to addressing water quality issues in Lake Wingra.” (Arnold, S. 2013 personal communication).

Not A New Situation

In a 1948 essay (his last) called “The Ecological Conscience”, Aldo Leopold wrote about the human tendency to create problems upstream and to pass them on to the neighbor living downstream.   Leopold was writing then about the “farmer” but today we could easily substitute “the city resident” or  “the City” for “the farmer.”

“It cannot be right, in the ecological sense, for a farmer to channelize his creek or pasture his steep slopes, because in doing so he passes flood trouble to his neighbors below, just as his neighbors above have passed it to him.  In cities we do not get rid of nuisances by throwing them across the fence onto the neighbor’s lawn, but in water-management we still do just that.” 

(Leopold, A.  1947.  “The Ecological Conscience”, page 345 IN “The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold, Edited by Susan L. Flader and J. Baird Callicott.  University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.)

By advancing a proposal to capture phosphorous and sediments and to hide them in the bottom of a pond with an alum application, the City of Madison either does not recognize or does not articulate its other responsibilities to the Lake Wingra watershed. These additional responsibilities include helping to maintain and enhance ecological functioning (ecosystem goods and services) of the water and the land—the watershed.  Ecosystem goods and services are necessary to sustain and fulfill human life. They include such things as the provisioning of clean water; the regulation of flood waters; soil protection and erosion control; climate maintenance (carbon sequestration); and crop and wild flower pollination.  In cultural terms, ecosystems goods and services fulfill recreational, intellectual, and spiritual needs.

Further, the City has a responsibility—if not legal requirement—to promote and practice the wise use of natural resources such as rainfall and soil, the very things that maintain and enhance ecosystem goods and services.

Now, what the City claims about its alum application may be true and certainly the actions that it proposes are legal—perhaps even mandated by Federal and State regulations—but, being legal does not make it right.  Leopold spoke to this when he developed his Land Ethic.  Leopold wrote:

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.  A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (Leopold, A.  1948.  “The Land Ethic, pp. 224-225. IN “A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.”  Oxford University Press. London.)

Leopold, I think, was then, and is now, urging us to move beyond the merely legal to do what is ecologically, socially, and culturally right.  A first step toward this outcome would be a community-wide civic discussion to discover our shared social, cultural, and ecological values for the watershed.

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, Friends of Lake Wingra, Lake Wingra Watershed, Lake Wingra Watershed management planning, Restoration ecology, Restoration in Madison Wisconsin, Soil erosion, Storm water and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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