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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Thursday, May 30, 2024
Photo of a pier on Lake Mendota.

Lake Mendota: To swim or not to swim?

Take a look at the hidden dangers of your favorite lake.


As summer draws near and sunlight drenches campus, students are anxious to get outdoors. 

One of the most popular ways to enjoy nature and beat the heat is swimming in Lake Mendota. The beloved body of water boasts refreshing waves and idyllic views, but what else does it hold? 

Pollution, specifically algae, is a common danger to aquatic areas. So, before you head to the terrace, consider adding some science to your beach bag. 

Lake Mendota is part of a larger river system referred to as the Yahara Lakes, which also encompasses Lakes Monona, Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa. These lakes have been experiencing problems with pollution for years, most notably due to their high phosphorus concentration. Phosphorus causes increased biological production, classifying Lake Mendota as eutrophic. 

Eutrophic lakes often cause unhealthy plant and animal growth. When lakes become eutrophic, the body of water becomes overcrowded, which causes respiration imbalances in its inhabitants and poses a threat to human health. 

Unfortunately, the uptick in organisms means an increase in blue-green algal blooms, often referred to as “harmful algae” because they pose dangerous health concerns to animals and humans. Negative side effects of blue-green algae contact include flu-like symptoms as well as skin and eye irritation. It’s important to be aware of these risks and keep a close eye on the health of yourself and your pets after a day in the water. 

Scientists and volunteers are committed to helping community members monitor Lake Mendota’s water quality. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) collects data each summer and found Lake Mendota has been a solidly eutrophic body of water with poor water quality over the past five years. 

Armed with this information, how else can you protect yourself? 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns citizens to check for advisories and avoid all blooms as it’s hard to tell which are harmful. However, some clear signs of unsafe water include discoloration, unusual scents, deceased animals on shore and foam or other surface streaks. If you happen to come into contact with blue-green algae, rinse yourself off as soon as possible and seek medical attention as needed

Besides water monitoring and increasing public awareness, what other solutions are there to the Yahara Lakes pollution problem? The Clean Lakes Alliance has been attempting to reduce phosphorus runoff from agricultural, erosion and leaf management practices. Natural causes like flooding and rainfall can also contribute to the high nutrient content, which means drought years are typically safer to swim in.

No matter the weather, be aware of the water you’re interacting with. Whether you’re taking a dip, casting a line or paddling into the sunset this summer, Lake Mendota can be a recreational haven if navigated safely. 

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