Madison’s Freshwater Resources

This early point in 2015 is a good opportunity to share with you the subjects this blog will cover in the coming year. Among the topics we will be reporting on include, the springs and Madison’s other freshwater resources; restoration ecology locally and state-wide; Madison environmental issues; profiles of area restoration projects; citizen engagement activities, and book recommendations, among other things.

Lake Wingra near the Pickford Street storm water outfall.  Photo by Stephen B. Glass

Lake Wingra near Pickford Street. Photo by Stephen B. Glass

Starting with this article on Madison’s freshwater resources, I’ll do a series of posts on the above topics that outlines the opportunities and constraints to conserving, preserving, and restoring our natural resources.

Freshwater resources

Lake Wingra’s springs, groundwater, and surface water resources are the continuing focus of this blog. Lakes, streams, and springs are ecologically important because they provide habitat for a variety of flora and reptiles, amphibians, fishes, birds, and other mammals; they give us our drinking water, and have social and cultural value as recreational amenities.


In our coverage of the springs, we will provide reports and photos on the springs themselves and the variety of flora and fauna they support. We will pay attention to the water quality and chloride levels of the springs, two variables that are indicators of land use practices in the surrounding watershed.

Council Spring viewed from the Kenneth Jensen Wheeler Council Ring

Council Spring viewed from the Kenneth Jensen Wheeler Council Ring

Threats to Our Freshwater Resources

We will be reporting on potential threats to the quality of Lake Wingra’s surface and groundwater resources (and thus Madison’s drinking water supply). Because the springs represent the intersection of surface and ground water resources they are a good place to observe impacts of human activities—both historic and current.

Madison’s Legacy of Underground Contamination

Potential threats to our surface and groundwater resources include Madison’s historic dumps and closed landfills because their contaminants can leach into surface and groundwater resources. Contaminants from this buried legacy of Madison’s garbage include: benzene, chloride, manganese, methane gas, sulfate, tetrachloroethylene (used by dry-cleaners), trichloroethylene (used in factories for metal degreasing), and vinyl chloride, and coal ash, among others.

Impacts from Current Human Activities

Environmental impacts from current human activities include: 1)soil erosion runoff from commercial and residential construction sites; 2) storm water that in some cases runs unabated and directly into our lakes; 3) sewage spills; 4) manure runoff from farm fields; and 5( road salt and sand runoff from City streets, among other things.

West Beltline Highway south Frontage Road, looking east.

West Beltline Highway south Frontage Road, looking east, Fall of 2012. Soil from a WI DOT construction site tracked on to the pavement..

Groundwater pumping

The Wingra Watershed is blessed with many permanent or seasonal open wetlands and marshes and has a high groundwater table (water at or near the surface for some of each year) in low-lying areas. With European settlement of Madison many of these wetlands were filled in (usually with garbage and other landfill items). Many businesses and residential properties in the Wingra Watershed are built on this landfill and are forced to continuously pump groundwater or spring water from their basements into the storm sewer. Pumping groundwater into the storm sewer treats a valuable natural resource as a toxin and is not a sustainable practice.

Storm water runoff

Storm water management practices used in Madison predominantly rely upon traditional and outmoded technologies. Some rain gardens and infiltration basins have been put in place but they are not enough to meet the need and in general Madison lags behind the nation in employing “green infrastructure” to infiltrate storm water runoff and otherwise minimize its quantity and impacts on the landscape. There are many storm water detention ponds, but in some places, (Lake Wingra and the Yahara River near Cherokee Marsh, for example) storm water is piped directly into the Lakes. We will be keeping an eye on developments in this area.

Next time:

We’ll talk about how restoration ecology is practiced in the contested policy landscape of the Lake Wingra Watershed, in particular, and in Madison and Dane County, in general. Restoration is a policy decision because it decides how money is spent, on what it is spent, and how land will be used.

In a contested landscape with “a dynamic interplay between technical decision-making, ideologies, and interest politics”, Baker and Eckerberg 2013, restoration practitioners are forced to “negotiate” 1) restoration policy (will restoration be allowed or not); 2)negotiate restoration targets (what is allowable and what is not), and restoration implementation (are the required resources provided.)

This blog will examine case studies from the Lake Wingra Watershed that illustrate the constraints facing restoration ecology in this contested landscape.


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 Brownfields in Madison, Freshwater resources, Groundwater, Lake Wingra, Lake Wingra Watershed, Negotiated landscape, Restoration ecology, Springs, Storm water and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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