Lake Wingra Watershed


Sunrise on Lake Wingra from the pier at Wingra Boats.

Lake Wingra is the smallest (and fifth lake) in the Madison, Wisconsin Four Lakes region.  The four major lakes, Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa, form a chain along the Yahara River, with Lake Wingra providing flow into Lake Monona.

Reportedly, “Wingra” is a Ho-Chung word meaning duck,  for the lake’s abundant waterfowl.  According to Robert A. Birmingham (2010) in his book “Spirits of Earth, The Effigy Mound Landscape of Madison and the Four Lakes”, the Ho-Chunk also called the lake Ki-chunk-och-hep-er-rah (“where the turtle rises up”).

Lake Wingra is a headwater lake, meaning that it does not have any tributaries into it and, because of this, was considered by early settlers to be a “dead lake.”   However, because of the many natural springs, the Native Americans, according to Birmingham,  must have thought of it quite differently–“as a source of life itself.”

Prior to European settlement, ground water inputs, natural springflow, and direct precipitation (rain and snow) provided the majority of Lake Wingra’s water; currently surface runoff (stormwater) has replaced springflow as the primary source of Lake Wingra’s water.

The Lake Wingra watershed, totaling about 4525 acres (2056 hectares) in Dane County, Wisconsin is about 75% built up.  Urbanization, storm water runoff laden with pollutants and sediment, and reduced flow from natural springs have opened niches for aquatic and terrestrial pest species that have invaded the lake and surrounding wetlands and uplands.  These changes affect property values, diminish the recreational experiences we all enjoy, and threaten to lessen the educational and scientific value of the lake and watershed.

The un-built-upon-or-paved-portions of the watershed contain a mix of remnant, restored, partially restored and degraded wetlands, grasslands and woodlands.  These natural areas are in a larger landscape context of residential, commercial and industrial activity.  Major restoration challenges include impacts from land use and cover type changes, fragmentation of habitat,  altered hydrologic regimes and human overuse.

We normally think of the watershed in terms of surface water, or where the storm water flows.  The size and shape of this kind of  watershed is typically determined by topography and the layout of streets and roads.  But there is also an invisible watershed below ground–the groundwater boundary.  The figure linked below shows these two watersheds in the Lake Wingra basin.
Groundwater/Storm Water Boundaries

The Lake Wingra watershed has a long history of human occupation. Native Americans–most recently the Ho-Chunk–and European settlers valued the numerous natural springs–most of which have been obliterated–that surrounded the lake.   This blog is about the current and former springs of Lake Wingra and the resulting changes in the landscape since European settlement.

Early in the 20th Century large-scale disruption began when developers divided Lake Wingra’s eastern marsh in two and cut off it from the Lake by a residential development and Arboretum Drive.  Subsequently, they ditched, dredged, and filled the marshes.  For more perspective and detail see “about the lake and the watershed”, provided by the Friends of Lake Wingra

As the Cities of Madison and Fitchburg and the Town of Madison have grown up around the watershed, population growth, residential and commercial development and associated highways, utility lines and storm water conveyances have further fragmented and perforated the watershed.

In the end, human activities have replaced soft, permeable soil with roofs, roads,  and parking lots with the result that more storm water runoff enters the wetlands and lake and less water infiltrates into the soil.  Annually, an estimated 110 million cubic feet/year (nearly 823 million gallons) of storm water runoff flows into the Arboretum and on to the lake.

These land use changes have dramatically altered watershed hydrology.  Originally, the watershed had nearly 30 groundwater springs, mostly near the lake; today only about 13 survive, the rest having been lost to roads, houses, utility infrastructure, and groundwater pumping for Madison’s water supply

The social and cultural history of springs is fascinating because in them is a reflection  of how humans relate to, think about, are aware of, and treat the landscape.  Springs are where groundwater emerges to replenish wetlands, streams, and lakes.   Springs are important indicators of social and ecological health.  Springs are where impacts upon the land are felt.  We will explore the death and revival of Lake Wingra’s springs in this blog.  To learn more about Lake Wingra’s watershed management issues, checkout my Storm Water page or Pest Species page.

The “Duck Pond spring”, also known as Gorham Spring, is actually a complex of major and minor springlets near busy Nakoma Road.

2 Responses to Lake Wingra Watershed

  1. Pingback: Lake Researchers Discover Early Signs of Lake Ecosystem Collapse | WingraSprings

  2. Pingback: A Case for Comprehensive Restoration Planning for Lake Wingra Watershed | WingraSprings

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