Storm Water Management versus Ecological Restoration–a review of Pond #1


Fraying of Social and Ecological Connections

Sometimes changes to landscape features happen so gradually, and over such a long time frame that we come to take them for granted. If we see them at all, we consider them part of the background, or think the situation they represent is the way it has always been, the way people want it to be, and always should be. This is certainly true of the storm water pond and collapsed infrastructure on the southwest edge of Curtis Prairie.  It has left an open wound that continues to fester.

The storm water wound on Curtis Prairie has physical and symbolic implications beyond the confines of Curtis Prairie; it has poked a hole in the watershed’s social and ecological fabric.  The collapsed flume typifies the “broken windows” syndrome:  neglect begets further neglect until neglect becomes the norm.

As a result, the ecological and social fabric of our common home, our shared Lake Wingra Watershed, is slowly coming unraveled. The events that tear at a community’s ecological connections often start small and are unnoticed, by most. Like an ignored and un-mended rip in the fabric of a favorite jacket, the hole will eventually get so big the owner has to mend the jacket, or throw it away—out of embarrassment, if nothing else.

History of Storm Water Management Issues

In 1969 the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WIDOT) excavated (with University and Arboretum acquiescence) a 3 acre storm water detention pond in the iconic Curtis Prairie, the world’s first prairie restoration. The WIDOT expansion of the nearby Beltline Highway had increased stormwater runoff into the prairie, necessitating the detention pond to hold the silt-laden water coming from the roadway construction.

The pond was connected to the Beltline Highway (US 12-14-18-151) storm water outfall—about 100 yards distant—by a concrete raceway, or flume.

To add insult to injury, the new pond—the first of eventually six in the Arboretum—dug up research plots established to study the effect of prescribed fire on restored prairies. The state’s excavation compromised and ended the experiment.

Over the years the concrete flume became undermined and, in the summer of 1996, it collapsed. Storm water, however, continued to flow; and with it the erodible sandy soil of the Leopold Pines flowed downstream.

Concrete slabs of the former Pond #1 flume lie in disarray as if an earthquake has pushed them aside.

Concrete slabs of the former Pond #1 flume lie in disarray as if an earthquake has pushed them aside.

I worked at the Arboretum when the storm water flume collapsed. The financial and technical magnitude of the repair task was beyond the meager resources or capabilities of the UW-Madison Arboretum, a research unit of the university’s Graduate School. We sought advice and assistance from the WIDOT.  And the WIDOT offered to repair the broken flume to approximately the design and condition prior to its collapse. Arboretum officials considered the proposal but, on the advice of water resources and stormwater experts in the university and extension office, rejected the offer of help.

Instead of fixing the flume right away, a storm water committee was formed to consider Pond #1 and the entire scope of storm water issues afflicting the Arboretum.

Arboretum Storm Water Committee

The Arboretum Storm Water Committee, on which I served, consisted of university and Arboretum faculty and staff. One of the first things the Arboretum Storm Water Committee did was develop a set of storm water management values. These values were to “better guide the Arboretum storm water planning process, and to provide criteria for making decisions about future storm water management options.” (2006 UW-Arboretum Facility Storm Water Management Plan, p 5.)

Arboretum Storm Water Management Values

These values were developed and approved in 2004 by the Arboretum Committee, a University faculty governance committee.  They are published in the Arboretum’s 2006 report, “Facility Storm Water Management Plan”.

  • “Managing storm water on UW-Arboretum property should attempt to maintain (or restore) conditions of storm water transport and infiltration that best serve Arboretum restoration objectives, while protecting the environment.”
  • “Flows of storm water runoff onto Arboretum property resulting from the surrounding urban areas should be controlled to pre-settlement levels to the extent possible, and managed for minimum impact upon Arboretum ecosystems.”
  • “The quality of storm water runoff (e.g. nutrients, solids, temperature) entering Arboretum ecosystems and draining to surface waters, should be consistent with pre-settlement quality.”
  • Any construction of storm water management infrastructure (e.g. detention ponds and dikes) on Arboretum property should serve and enhance Arboretum restoration, teaching, research, and outreach goals.”
  • “UW-Arboretum should encourage wise storm water management practices throughout the surrounding watershed community, by example and through education.”

The values looked good on paper but never got traction among the engineering planners who generally viewed them at best, as irrelevant, or at worst, as an obstacle.

The former flume has become a small stream, carrying runoff from a portion of the watershed south of the Beltline.

The former flume has become a small stream, carrying runoff from a portion of the watershed south of the Beltline.

The storm water committee eventually developed a few conceptual plans to repair the collapsed flume, dredge the existing pond and better design it to meet City of Madison storm water management needs and requirements and Arboretum restoration and research needs and requirements. Trouble was, as we discovered, 1) the needs, and requirements of the City (and University?) and 2) of the Arboretum were entirely different. One group valued an engineering approach; the other valued an ecological approach. The values gulf between the two could never be bridged.

That philosophical obstacle, as well as financial ones, prevented development of construction designs and plans. The storm water committee could not secure sufficient funding from the University, the City, or the State to take on a project whose costs were estimated to exceed $1million.  So, here we sit in 2016 and no plans have been approved, let alone money allocated, to repair the collapsed flume and Pond #1 itself. A search of the UW-Madison Arboretum website turns up no mention of the Pond #1 flume, its current condition, nor plans to repair it.

Native Soil Continues To Be Lost

In the meantime, the Arboretum Storm Water Management Plan, (2006 p. 17) estimated that in the 10 years since the flume collapse, more than 1000 cubic yards of native soil was eroded from beneath the flume and accumulated in the pond. This overload of soil limited the capacity of the pond for containing storm flows and removing nutrients.

Time Passes

Twenty years later, as of this writing in early Nov. 2016, the collapsed flume has still not been repaired. It is estimated that in the 10 years between 2006 and 2016 at least an additional 1000 cubic yards of native soil have been washed away. The total over 20 years is a loss of 2000 cubic yards of native soil; and with it the native flora and fauna.

Access gate to the fenced off Pond #1 flume area.

Access gate to the fenced off Pond #1 flume area.

What’s Happened Since 1996 Here on Earth

In case you have forgotten, or were not alive in 1996, or are new to Madison, the collapsed flume is not normal and is not good for the Arboretum or the watershed. Twenty years is a long time to let a wound fester. The infection has now spread throughout Curtis Prairie, and beyond.

While time seems to stand still in parts of the watershed, much else in the world has changed since 1996.  In that time the United States has had three presidents: Bill Clinton (second term), George W. Bush (2 terms), and Barack Obama (soon to complete his 2nd term).

The Arboretum has had three directors, none of whom were able to produce a solution to the storm water problems afflicting Curtis Prairie. The Arboretum storm water planning project team and the later storm water committee, while they identified the problem, have failed to develop or carry out a solution.

But the collapsed storm water flume continues to send eroded native soil down the drain.

Technological Developments since 1996

Elsewhere there have been many developments and accomplishments since 1996:
In 1996 came MP3 formatting.
The DVD was invented in 1997 and Fujitsu released the first 42-inch plasma television.
In 1998 the first digital cameras were released.
Also in 1998 computer animation was introduced.
In 1999 there were two inventions that impact us all: WiFi and the search engine Google.
In 2000, Toyota introduced the first hybrid automobile.
In 2001 the iPod was introduced, and the first artificial liver was developed.
In 2005, YouTube was launched.
In 2007 the first iPhone was introduced by Steve Jobs.
In 2016 the iPhone 7 was introduced.

In addition to items mentioned above, since 1996 there have been advances in artificial intelligence, driverless cars, virtual reality and the widespread use of wind and solar power.

All the while more native soil washed downstream and neither the state, nor the university, nor the city could muster the interest, moral resolve, or resources or overcome differences to carry out a repair to the collapsed Pond #1 flume.

Since 1996 in Outer Space

In terms of lunar and planetary exploration, NASA and private companies have accomplished much since 1996. For example:
The International Space Station has made countless orbits over the collapsed Pond #1 flume.
NASA has launched several missions to Mars and even landed exploratory rovers on the planet.
In 2005 NASA accomplished a fly-by of the Comet Hartley 2 as part of its Deep Impact mission.
In 2011 NASA launched a Jupiter orbiter.
The Hubble Space Telescope was repaired 4 times and continues to send amazing images back to earth. Launched in 1990, Hubble is expected to be retired in 2016.
In addition, there are the accomplishments of private companies such as Space X which is developing the ability to launch its own rockets for space exploration.

And the list goes on, and native soil continues to flow downstream, but still the collapsed Pond #1 flume lies in ruins on the edge of the world’s first prairie restoration.

Accomplishments Closer to Home

The Beltline Highway, again.

In November, 2016 the WIDOT is putting the finishing touches on an extensive $139 million project to expand, yet again, the Beltline Highway on the Arboretum’s southern boundary to six lanes (3 in each direction) from Seminole Highway west to Whitney Way, a distance of about two miles. The massive project began in March 2013 and is expected to conclude in early November, 2016. The project boundaries like the Arboretum, are within the Lake Wingra Watershed.

Although the State of Wisconsin can find the money for the Beltline project it can’t summon the resources to fix a 200 yard scar on the landscape. And during the highway project the Arboretum’s native soil continued to wash downstream.

A small wetland delta has formed from eroded soil has developed in the past 20 years.

A small wetland delta, formed from eroded soil,  has developed in the past 20 years.

On the Positive Side

I don’t approve of neglect as a strategy or tactic to solve problems.  But, ironically, and fortuitously, over the past twenty years neglect of the Pond #1 flume has proven to be a good teaching tool and demonstration project.    Eroded soil from underneath the flume and from the Evjue Pines on the Arboretum’s Grady Tract south of the Beltline, has formed a delta and small wetland at the mouth of the flume.

It has been documented (J. Zedler 2016 personal communication) that the wetland provides an important ecological function by denitrifying storm water inputs. Zedler also reminds me that a shallow pond is more likely to support denitrification than a deepened pond. And, because the threat to Arboretum is nitrogen (N) and not phosphorous and because there is no evidence that phosphorous escapes all the way the Lake Wingra, there is no need to dredge the pond. If the pond were dredged, and/or enlarged as the storm water engineers insist is necessary, these functions would be lost.

Whether or not these science based findings will be valued and influence future storm water management plans is an open question.    Whether or not Arboretum management can negotiate desirable restoration outcomes remains to be seen.


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 Curtis Prairie, Ecological restoration, Human impacts on restorations, Lake Wingra Watershed, Restoration ecology, Soil erosion, Storm water and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Storm Water Management versus Ecological Restoration–a review of Pond #1

  1. Gary Shackelford says:


    This past summer during a visit to the Pope Farm Conservancy in Verona, I had the opportunity to view and learn about the concrete spillway at the farm.This marvel of Depression-era construction was built by the CCC during the late 1930s to mitigate erosion on the above hillside, and it still functions today. In bygone years the spillway was frequently visited by UW students enrolled in soil and water conservation classes to illustrate good conservation practices, and even now it is protected as an historic landmark. What a contrast to the sorry state of the collapsed and neglected storm water flume at the UW Arboretum.

    Interested readers can learn more about the Pope Farm Conservancy spillway by going here

    and by clicking on the appropriate links.

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