Dane County’s clean lakes initiatives promise high return on investment

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi is keenly aware of how important Madison-area lakes are to residents’ quality of life, but he also knows they’re vital to our business community’s future prospects.

In fact, if Madison ever hopes to stanch its brain drain and compete for talent with the economically vibrant coasts or with Midwestern Goliaths like Chicago and Minneapolis, the lakes cannot be overlooked.

“I was having lunch with an IT entrepreneur recently,” said Parisi. “He has a homegrown IT business that’s very successful, and we were talking about his concerns about the potential for brain drain from Dane County. Most of the challenge that he has with attracting talent and keeping talent is that people want to live in Chicago, they want to live in Seattle, they want to live in bigger cities.

“This is going to take a good 10, 15 years of sustained effort. … We know how much phosphorus we need to take out of the system in order to see a change, and obviously we didn’t get here overnight; it’s not going to change overnight.” — Dane County Executive Joe Parisi

“So he said, when we look at what we have to sell in our region, the lakes are simply critical to maintaining the quality of life that attracts people, particularly young people, young entrepreneurs, to a region. So simply from a quality of life standpoint, which leads to our ability to attract and keep the best and brightest, it’s vital.”

As one of the key stakeholders in a multipronged, multi-partner effort to address the health of the Yahara Lakes, Dane County has been holding up its end admirably, and that can only be seen as good news for the economic viability of the region.

Dane County has plenty of bullets in its bandolier when it comes to ameliorating phosphorus levels in local lakes — which is the primary challenge facing the county, its municipalities, and others concerned about lake quality. (To bring the issue home for local residents, Clean Lakes Alliance likes to cite this alarming statistic: Just one pound of phosphorous leaked into a lake produces 500 pounds of algae.)

The county’s most effective plan of attack, however, may be simply listening, and making it easier for local farmers and municipalities to be better environmental stewards.

The county’s latest initiative, the “Store More for Cleaner Lakes” Grant Program, is a case in point.

The program targets phosphorus runoff, roughly 75% of which comes from farms. Most of that occurs during the spring as a result of winter manure spreading and the rains that follow. While every Wisconsin resident remembers the deep freeze we endured this past winter, Madisonians with slightly better memories may recall the starkly different conditions of the previous winter, which was marked by warm, rainy weather and freezing temperatures.

“There was basically no good time for them to spread manure that entire winter because of the rain and then the ground freezing and then more rain, so we had lots of runoff,” said Parisi.

Those conditions were problematic for the lakes, and they sparked a dialogue between the county and its farmers.

“We met with the farmers to talk about this, and what came out of that meeting was recognition that the biggest challenge the farmers have in addressing winter spreading is a lack of storage capacity,” said Parisi. “That’s why our digesters helped those farms, because the digesters basically store manure and allow them to prevent winter spreading, and some farms have a limited amount of storage, but few of them have enough — say you have a five-month winter like we did this year — to get through without having to do something about the manure.”

That conversation led to a private-public partnership that Parisi hopes will help farmers, county residents, and ultimately the lakes.

The “Store More for Cleaner Lakes” program has made $500,000 in funding available to provide zero-interest loans or cost-sharing agreements that will allow farmers to expand their storage capacity so they can spread manure when it’s best for their crops, as opposed to in the winter when the process can lead to greater runoff.

Applications for the program are being accepted early this summer, and in exchange for the county’s help, farmers will be expected not to spread manure in the winter.

According to Parisi, the county is looking at other solutions as well, like buffer strips, roofs over feedlots, and different types of techniques used on the farm. More manure digesters — and more technologically advanced digesters — are also a good option. And then there’s the persistent issue of urban runoff (see below). But to Parisi, the storage program is a vitally important part of the county’s efforts.

“All those pieces are important, but what really stands out when you dig down into the data and look at when the runoff occurs or why it occurs, it has its root cause in a lack of adequate storage,” said Parisi.

With respect to the manure digesters  — like the energy-producing “cow power” facilities currently operating in the Waunakee area and the Town of Springfield — the county has a key role in facilitating partnerships, says Parisi. The county identifies farms that are interested in being part of a digester project, which can help them with manure management, and then looks for investors and operators to bring the deals together. And if all goes well, those digesters will soon become more powerful.

“One of the exciting pieces of the digester process in the 2014 budget is we’re going to be piloting this nutrient concentration system out at the Springfield digester that kind of goes one step further than the other digesters have gone,” said Parisi, “and that being that it will take the liquid that’s left over from the digesting process and remove 100% of the remaining phosphorous from it, and we will literally be left with potable water. When you can do something like that, that will help the farmers more because, again, it addresses the waste they have to deal with and it hits at the core of what we need to do to clean up our lakes.”



But while rural runoff is a key focus of the county’s efforts, urban runoff remains a big concern as well. Last year, through the Urban Water Quality Grant program, the county made cost-sharing funds available (up to 75% of the total project costs) to improve the quality of urban stormwater runoff entering Dane County waterways from the most troublesome outfalls. Those included Starkweather Creek at the Garver Feed Mill, Willow Creek on the UW campus, the Warner Park outfall, and the Schuluter Beach outfall.

“When it rains, the stormwater outflows in the urban areas go in the gutter, and then there are literally hundreds of pipes throughout the system, and that water flushes directly into the lakes, so there’s no filter,” said Parisi. “Everything that washes off the street, off the lawns goes right into the lakes. … Our matching grant program partners with municipalities to replace those pipes, which basically go directly to the lake from the streets, with detention basins.”

Meanwhile, Parisi admits that there’s no silver bullet for cleaning up Madison’s lakes, but he’s encouraged by the work the county, local municipalities, local businesses, and nonprofits like the Clean Lakes Alliance are doing.

“This is going to take a good 10, 15 years of sustained effort,” said Parisi. “We know what we have to do to reach our goals. We know how much phosphorus we need to take out of the system in order to see a change, and obviously we didn’t get here overnight; it’s not going to change overnight. So I think it’s important that we realize that we have to keep the momentum moving forward, that we don’t give up if everything isn’t fine in two years, because it’s not going to be fine in two years. But at the same time, we need to ensure that we continue to hold ourselves accountable and make sure that we are making the progress that we need to make to get there.”

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