Using Restoration to Create Resilient Systems

Right now there is an important role for restoration ecologists and restoration planners to play on the teams of experts, engineers, and officials that are charting a vision for the future of the Lake Wingra Watershed.  Restoration ecologists need to be engaged even more than they have in the past in this watershed planning, both in general ways, and in the management of storm water in particular.  Their voices have too long been silent, or overwhelmed by those who have different kinds of  authority, different kinds technical ability, and different kinds of wisdom.  In sports terms the watershed planning project needs a complete team with a full range of skills and expertise and a deep bench in reserve if we are going to tackle the problems facing us and take advantage of our opportunities.

Aluminum Versus Phosphorous

Officials and planners in Madison and Dane County Wisconsin are right to be concerned about the health of our lakes–aquatic pest species, algal blooms, and sedimentation.  And, they have zeroed in on one (among many) contributors to these problems:  overabundance of phosphorous in storm water runoff.  But recent local initiatives  to solve this problem by adding potassium aluminum sulfate to storm water is merely treating the symptom of a larger problem while ignoring the fundamental cause (s) which are the unsustainable ways we treat the land.  (See this earlier post on this blog for reporting on this issue.)  One symptom of this misuse of land in the Lake Wingra watershed is the epidemic of construction site soil erosion which washes down the storm drain to Lake Wingra with each rainfall or snowmelt.

The City of Madison proposals to add aluminum sulfate to storm water ponds to cure the phosphorous impacts on lake ecosystems is typical of our human approach to problem solving in that we humans often focus on the symptom and ignore the fundamental problem.  It is seductive for us humans to tell ourselves that we can engineer, or tinker, our way out of trouble.  Like rats in a maze, or in a Skinner Box, intermittent success gives us just enough encouragement and confidence to persist.

The scorecard for humanity’s  success in engineering itself out of trouble is weighted on the “loss” side of the ledger.   The current case of alum versus phosphorous is likely to uphold this sad history.

Our Focus Must be on the Watershed As Well As the Lake

Failure–and a long list of unintended negative impacts–is likely because this approach ignores Aldo Leopold’s advice:  “Soil and water are not two organic systems, but one.  Both are organs of a single landscape; a derangement in either affects the health of both.”  (Leopold, 1941,).

Alum applications are reactive, not proactive; they are an end-of-the-stormwater-pipe treatment; and they ignore the land/water connection that Leopold reminds us of.  Much like sweeping a problem under the rug, the aluminum sulfate application technique will quite literally bury the problem on the bottom of a storm water pond.  Where it will stay until the pond has to be dredged and the alum/phosphorous coagulate will be hauled to a disposal site–thus exporting the Wingra Watershed problem to others elsewhere  All the while ignoring the things happening on the land that contribute to the problem.

In another essay called “Engineering and Conservation” (Leopold, 1938) states that he can get at ” . . . the root of the matter by this generalization:  the engineer believes, and has taught the public to believe, that a constructed mechanism is inherently preferable to a natural one.  The conservationist believes the contrary.”

Restoration As Planning Process

There is a tool underused or a tool missing from the local planning process:  restoration ecology.  In a 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 mange across watersheds and landscapes that are shifting from rural to urban.  Restorationists can build on this experience and ability by developing detailed protocols for maintaining and managing resilient ecosystems 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 small, fragmented parcels; restoration also requires the skills to cultivate ecological literacy, encourage appropriate social and recreational uses of the restoration, and build community support–by use of both dollars and muscles–for the project.


Leopold, Aldo.  1938.  Engineering and Conservation.  Pages 405-410  IN Leopold, A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation. Curt Meine, Editor.  2013.  The Library of America, Library Classics of the United States, New York, NY.

Leopold, Aldo. 1941.  Lakes in Relation to Terrestrial Life Patterns.  Pages 447-453. IN  “Leopold, A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation.” Curt Meine, Editor. 2013.    The Library of America, Library Classics of the United States, New York, NY.


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 Alum application trial, Ecological restoration, Lake Wingra Watershed, Phosphorus in storm water, Restoration ecology, Restoration in Madison Wisconsin and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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