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Water steward

James Tye’s relationship with Madison’s lakes drives his efforts to save them.

“We have to change how we interact with our lakes,” insists Clean Lakes Alliance Founder and Executive Director James Tye.

“We have to change how we interact with our lakes,” insists Clean Lakes Alliance Founder and Executive Director James Tye.

Photograph by Sarah Maughan

From the pages of In Business magazine.

James Tye’s love of Madison’s five lakes goes beyond a commitment to keep them phosphorus-free. Beyond the swimming lessons he took as a kid, or boating, or his passion for wooden boats — the west Madison native has a deeper, life-changing connection.

“I was about 19 when I came to the realization of who I was,” Tye reflects. “I took the day off work and went to James Madison Park and quietly thought about my life.” In the solitude at the beach he found clarity. “Something about being surrounded by water brings inner peace,” he recalls. “At that moment I knew I had to come out to my family.”

In 2010, Tye, 46, founded the Clean Lakes Alliance (CLA) to achieve a different kind of clarity: water clarity.

Now the executive director, Tye says he launched the nonprofit at a time when there was “no clear advocate for the lakes, nobody pulling the community together in defense of them.”

Now there is.

Clean Lakes Alliance, along with other notable businesses, is committed to reduce phosphorus in area lakes by 50%. Year after year its efforts have moved the needle, from removing 5,000 pounds its first year to 13,000 pounds last year, but each year also gets more challenging for the 11-employee organization.

“Madison is the lakes,” Tye emphasizes. “Without them, we’re just another university town in a state capital. We might as well be Lincoln, Nebraska.”

He recently discussed the organization’s mission and urgency in a battle against climate change.

IB: Phosphorus is still the primary culprit?
Absolutely. Every pound that enters the lakes creates about 500 pounds of algae. Seventy percent of phosphorus comes from agricultural field runoff and 30% from the urban community. Zebra mussels, blue-green algae blooms, it all comes back to phosphorus.

IB: What’s a bad day for the lakes?
When we get rain in the winter on frozen land. The water has nowhere to go. My heart cries out for my staff and the county when you get a gully washer in the middle of winter, forcing everything into the lakes. Our systems are not built for that and they need to be rebuilt to deal with climate change. Scientists are calling for more days of snow, ice, and rain in years to come.

IB: What can “Joe Citizen” do?
Get the leaves out of the streets! They have a tea-bag effect that flushes phosphorus into our lakes through the storm sewers. We need to create a culture that understands that leaves in the street are just not acceptable anymore.

IB: Is this a losing battle?
No! This is a very solvable problem. We know what the solutions are and what they will cost, but we need to do more at a faster pace to keep up with climate change, and we need the community to back us. Green roofs, rain barrels, and rain gardens also help. Our hand is being forced, but we can’t do it alone.

IB: Which means money?
Money and advocates.

IB: What other priorities are on the organization’s docket?
Many people may not realize that 48% of our lakeshore is publicly owned and that Madison has 25 community beaches. We need to make sure those parks and access points are appropriately sustainable, usable, and equitable for community use. In addition to city and county efforts, we will be doing tens of thousands of dollars in projects this year. We have to, to keep up with climate change.

IB: What does the business community need to know?
That this problem is not solved by one organization. We are an alliance of the entire community and we all need to take part in protecting and improving our lakes.

Businesses can encourage their employees to take part in any of our volunteer days throughout the year, or to participate in our Yahara Watershed Academy, which trains stewards throughout the community.

It’s important. Businesses depend on quality of life. Our lakes are tied to everything we do here. If Madison’s beaches close, who’s going to move here for a job?

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.

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