Keeper of the lakes: Joe Yaeger oversees weed harvesting and other aspects of lake management

“I think I have one of the best jobs in the county,” says Joe Yaeger, lake management supervisor for Dane County. He’s been working for the county for 27 years, and when boating and fishing season is over, he moves into the Department of Public Works in the role of project coordinator.

In his youth, Yaeger, 58, earned an associate degree from MATC as a diesel and heavy equipment mechanic. He worked at Polk Diesel for 10 years as a field service mechanic before landing the county position. 

Now he works from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, though he’s always on call. During the summer months, he oversees two mechanics and about 20 seasonal employees, who work to make Dane County’s lakes navigable, safe, and less weedy. Under his charge are all Dane County lakes, including golf course ponds, gravel swimming pits, and lagoons at locations such as Tenney and Vilas parks, Fish Lake, and Indian Lake. 

“I’m out on the lakes every day,” he says. “I may not be on a boat, but I’m always working on the equipment or talking to the weed cutters.”

His typical day begins with a staff meeting to administer the day’s instructions. Where will the harvesters be? The elevators? What did they accomplish the previous day?

Weed control

On a regular basis, Yaeger sends a “weed scout” to check lakes around the county and report back on conditions. Checking for weeds and keeping them at bay is neither rocket science nor an exact science. In Yaeger’s mind, the best way to monitor weed growth is to throw out a double-sided steel rake and then count the weeds collected on the tines. The most populous invasive species are Eurasian milfoil and coontail, but sometimes even native plants can run so thick they can become a problem. 

“We cut for access and usability for the lakes, and we choose mechanical harvesting here versus using chemicals,” he says. Yaeger’s crew makes the lakes accessible to boaters, swimmers, and other water enthusiasts, but the number of weeds harvested in any given summer is just a fraction of the total number of weeds in the lakes, he says.

The trouble this year has been the weather. Weed harvesting is a month behind, and on this day, the maintenance shop is loaded with dry-docked weed harvesters. Meanwhile, his staff is anxious to hit the water. It’s Yaeger’s biggest frustration. With June and July typically the most intense months because of increased boating activity, he hates the delay. 

The county’s 10 metal weed harvesters are bigger than one might expect — about 35 feet long by 16 feet wide. One driver is assigned to each machine. Perched in a seat several feet above the water, the driver controls the machine with two levers on either side of the seat. On newer models, a single joystick does the same.

Drivers must be able to safely maneuver in rough weather, choppy conditions, and between docks near the shoreline. Though it may look like a good gig, baking in the hot sun while running a metal machine can be exhausting. “It takes a good year or more to become a good weed harvester,” Yaeger says. “You respect the good operators. It’s hard to stick with a piece of machinery for eight hours straight, especially when bouncing around on a lake.” Unless lightning is present, cutters are out every day, even in rain. “We’re not fair-weather people,” Yaeger says. On a more serious note, a good day, he says, is when everyone returns injury-free and not dehydrated. 

Harvesters are propelled along by paddle wheels on either side of the machines that are unaffected by the weeds. Most often, weeds are cut in water that’s 3 to 5 feet deep. Last year, Lake Wingra weeds were cut at a depth of 16 feet. The blades are lowered into the water, and the cut weeds are lifted out on a belt that drops them into a holding cage at the back of the vessel. Depending on weather, a full day’s work could result in as little as a ton of weeds or as many as 15. 

When the harvester reaches its storage capacity, the driver moves to the shore, where a mobile elevator waits. The elevator moves the harvested plants up a belt and into a waiting dump truck. From there, the harvest is transferred to the nearest compost site before the truck returns for the next load.



The harvesters return to the elevators every night. “We have five elevators,” Yaeger explains. “We try to keep several on Monona and Mendota, and one to two at Waubesa.” In a typical year, says Yaeger, the harvesters should make it around Lake Kegonsa twice and Lake Waubesa four to six times from April through October. The machines are always in the water on Lake Monona, making about 15 sweeps a year, while Lake Mendota is harvested twice, with some of its bays cut more frequently.

Recreational boaters unknowingly cut weeds on a continual basis with their outboard motors. “There’s a ton of prop chop on the Madison lakes,” Yaeger says. “All those boats are cutting weeds.” Some weeds drift to shore, where they’ll likely rot and smell. Conveniently, Yaeger also supervises shoreline cleanup teams — three barges and crews — assigned to rid the lake fringes of garbage, weeds, sticks, and other debris.

The county park system works closely with the Dept. of Natural Resources on lake projects. “There are lots of rules,” Yaeger says. “If I’m out scouting and see a high density of weeds that are not invasive, we have to get permission from the DNR to cut.”

Of buoys and bogs

While weed cutting is a big part of summer maintenance of Madison-area lakes, Yaeger also oversees buoy placement. Between 20% and 30% of buoys have lights that must be maintained. They designate swimming areas, indicate channels or rock piles, and mark centerlines for navigation. Some, such as “Slow-No Wake” buoys, are regulatory in nature, and failure to comply with them can lead to tickets. GPS is usually used when placing buoys. Large buoys are anchored with a chain to 300-pound weights while smaller versions are attached to 70-pound weights.

Tomorrow, some of Yaeger’s crew will head out on one of the county’s barges to re-establish the Cherokee Marsh. Marsh plants will be loaded onto a trailer and then placed in the lake to thrive. The marsh serves as a sponge and filters water flowing into the lake.

During rare seasons, heavy rain and high water can actually cause marshes (bogs) of various sizes to break loose. Those are Yaeger’s really bad days. 

“We had a nine-acre bog floating in the lake years ago,” he recalled. “They can be 4 feet thick. You could actually walk on it. We pushed it into the boat landings and loaded parts onto trucks and back to composting areas. 

“Bogs [of any size] are a bad word,” he continued, shaking his head. “They’re heck to deal with. You can push them with a barge. We pushed one from the student union over to Warner Park, then cabled it to a big tree.”

And water levels are increasing, he says, particularly on Lake Monona. “The metropolitan area has grown, causing more runoff,” he says. “Monona is a low spot.” 

The weed-cutting efforts, which Yaeger said began back in the 1960s, have enhanced the condition of area lakes. “I think they’ve really improved,” he said. “When I started, the Eurasian milfoil was extremely bad. Every year we get calls from people saying the weeds are the worst ever. That’s not true. The quality has improved greatly.”

After each shift, Yaeger heads home to his farm in Cambridge where he and his wife have 100 sheep. “I can’t ever get away,” he says. “It’s hard to find people to do the chores, and sheep are more sensitive to food and water. To me, they’re too finicky.”

He used to get away on his own boat but grew tired of the maintenance. “They say the two best days of boat ownership are the day you buy it and they day you sell it.”

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