Those lucky enough to stay in Madison in recent summers may have noticed a peculiar sight in Lake Mendota, our campus’s most famous natural attraction. The recreational hotbed has become susceptible to large amounts of green algae during summer months. While the sprawling algae blooms are not the result of human activity directly on the lake, the phenomenon has prevented people from enjoying Lake Mendota’s full potential. More seriously than a decrease in summer activity, though, the algae represent a health risk to both human lake-goers as well as the animals and organisms who call Mendota home.
The algae itself is due to the unnaturally high levels of nutrients, specifically phosphorus, within the lake. These high levels come from sediment runoff from the agriculture industry. This causation was not always obvious, as poor water quality was originally thought to be the result of wastewater being dumped into the lake. However, after water quality failed to improve after Madison’s decision in 1971 to cease off-site wastewater flowing into the Mendota and the other nearby Yahara lakes, it became abundantly clear that agriculture practices were a large contributor to the problem.
Although the problem in Mendota is most visible to the Madison community, agricultural pollution has jeopardized water quality and aquatic ecosystems across the state. Drinking water is filled with agricultural remnants such as manure and fertilizer, fish are dying in large numbers and lake beaches are being closed. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, roughly 1,300 of the state’s water sections — 20 percent — are considered “impaired” by farming practices.
UW-Madison agronomy professor Chris Kucharik says that while it is “easy to blame agriculture … we’ve kind of painted them into a corner because of [our] choices as a society. They do what they do because of the demands for those products.” He states that in order to move forward from the issue, “we have to give [farmers] other opportunities that are better from an environmental perspective and that allow them to continue to make a living and are economically viable. They would rather not pollute the environment.”
This dynamic is part of why the solution to water quality has proven to be so complex despite the fact that the root of the problem is fairly simple. Finding a balance between protecting water sources, such as Lake Mendota, from agricultural runoff without jeopardizing farmers’ livelihood can be contentious and sometimes counteractive.
Furthermore, there is what Kucharik calls “a legacy problem with nitrogen and phosphorus.” That is to say, that when these nutrients enter land and ecosystems over a period of time, “it can take decades for the environment to recover.” This had led to a misleading perception that the agriculture industry is not innovating. They have improved various practices, especially with regards to tillage and fertilizer planning, according to Kucharik. However, the longevity of the nutrients’ presence, as well as increasingly severe rainfall, has increased the amount of runoff and maintained the high nutrient levels, even in the midst of preventative measures.
To make matters more challenging, the nature of agricultural production over the last half-century has shifted from small-scale farms towards larger, industrial farms. While these mega-farms are often innovative in environmentally-friendly technology, they have also increased the concentration of various nutrients. In Wisconsin particularly, these large-scale farms have increased the number of their cows, resulting in more concentrated areas of manure, which contaminate water sources. Kucharik predicts that the increase of large farms will create “individual hotspots of problems,” such as Kewaunee County in northeastern Wisconsin.
The array of environmental challenges facing the agricultural industry require funding. As the price and feasibility of enforcement have become tepid, though, state funding has decreased. In a recent interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, the director of Wisconsin Land and Water, Jim Vandenbrook, pointed to this lack of state funding as a serious obstacle in its fight to improve overall water quality in the state. While the state has never provided adequate funds, according to Vandenbrook, it has further decreased by 40 percent since 1997.
The lack of statewide financial support has forced a variety of local agreements to be undertaken to combat water pollution. In 2016, roughly 60 local governments around the region signed an agreement known as the Yahara Pact that, according to the State Journal, will generate $40 million over 20 years to prevent phosphorus-laden materials from being carried to surface water.
In addition to that agreement, Yahara Pride Farms was established in 2011, representing a group of farmers who are voluntarily exploring and implementing strategies to reduce the fluxes in nutrients.
As various measures are researched and agreed upon, communities move closer towards a solution. However, given the legacy effects of these nutrients and fertilizers, the timespan of fixing the problem is years away. In order to diligently address water contamination, Kucharik believes it is important to implement strategies sooner. These tactics must also be done “incrementally, with some long term plan,” so as not to put insurmountable pressure on farmers.
It will take years for the pollution in water sources like Lake Mendota to improve. However, the long timetable does not mean the state and its population can continue to ignore the problem. Kucharik notes that this issue will eventually “come to a head,” and that “the state would be well-served for the future to start thinking about those things now, instead of kicking it down the road for the next group.”
The algae that blooms in our campus’s lake represent more than just an obstacle to summer fun: It indicates a dangerous epidemic within our entire state. It is not too late to correct the problem, but it will undoubtedly take time, effort and patience on the part of citizens and government officials.
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