Note: The following article was published in the April/May 1998 edition of the Bay Creek Bulletin and several other Madison neighborhood newsletters.

A Brief History of Lake Monona

How We Can Help Ensure a Bright Future

by Jim Winkle, Jim AT

Imagine it's 1866. The question of the day: should Madison become a university town, a center for government, or an industrial city? While citizens debate the subject, Madison's first successful resort-the Lakeside House-opens its doors on the shores of the then-pristine Lake Monona, where Olin Park is today. Ice harvested in winter on this beautiful lake is shipped south and used in iced drinks; that's how clean Lake Monona is in 1866.

The clear and appealing lake on which the Lakeside House was built played no small part in the success of the hotel, which attracted people from all over the Upper Midwest, and even as far away as New Orleans. This was impressive, given the transportation options of the time.

1866 also marked the year city officials removed the capitol lawn outhouse and replaced it with an indoor water closet. This seemingly unrelated event heralded the beginning of the end of the health of Lake Monona.

Many Madisonians followed suit and achieved indoor plumbing by about 1885. To accommodate them, the city built a sewer system but couldn't afford a processing plant; the raw sewage was simply dumped into Lake Monona. A long, intense public debate followed about whether dumping raw sewage in the lake would affect its water quality.

By 1895, little doubt remained that a direct relationship existed between dumping of sewage and the deteriorating lake condition. The stench became unbearable on hot summer days. Weeds and algae flourished, and the city commissioned what was perhaps the first lake weed-cutting machine. People stopped swimming in Lake Monona and stopped eating its fish. Building a sewage processing plant became the city's top priority. There were several attempts to build one, but they failed; partially treated sewage rich in nutrients ended up in the lake for decades. By 1936, most of the sewage was properly processed, but it wasn't until 1952 that none of the effluent generated in Madison was discharged into the lake. In the 1970s and 1980s, more work was done to eliminate upstream discharges from smaller communities into the chain of lakes connected by the Yahara River, and now there is no significant point source of sewage entering Lake Monona.

So, why hasn't Lake Monona returned to its former pristine state? Why do so many people lie on the beach in the summer, but only a few venture into the water? Why do we still need to cut lake weeds? The answer is simple: weeds and algae in the lake grow abnormally fast because excess nutrients are entering the lake through our storm sewers.

Susan Jones, Watershed Management Coordinator for Dane County Lakes & Watershed Commission, explains further: "Sedimentation, weeds and algae growth are the major water resource problems in Lake Monona. These problems are caused by the phosphorus and sediment that runs off of all the paved areas around the lake, and in the water flowing in from Lake Mendota. The 1992 Yahara-Monona Priority Watershed Plan estimated that urban runoff carries 3,939 pounds of phosphorus into Lake Monona each year from pet waste, fertilizer, leaves, and grass clippings." When it rains, all of these things can be washed off lawns and sidewalks into the street, where they are quickly transported through the storm sewers directly to the lake.

What can you do to help improve the quality of Lake Monona? If you own a dog, the Lakes & Watershed Commission recommends either flushing its waste down the toilet, or burying it four to six inches deep. By keeping pet waste out of the lake, you're also making the lake safer since such waste carries bacteria. If your neighbor owns a dog and leaves dog waste on their lawn, call Animal Control, 267-1989, and the city will leave a brochure explaining how to properly dispose of it, or you can talk to them yourself.

If you use pesticides or commercial fertilizers, consider not using them. Many lawn problems stem from the wrong grass type being planted, and/or compacted soil. Chemicals won't ever solve those problems, but rather will drain your pocketbook year after year as your lawn becomes addicted to them.

Do you have lots of trees that shade your lawn, so your grass doesn't grow well? Your lawn was quite possibly planted with full sun grass seed before there were big shade trees around. Learn how to establish a new lawn (autumn is the best time for this), and reseed it with shade seed. This isn't as difficult or expensive as you might think. UW-Extension (608-262-3346) has a publication entitled "Lawn Establishment" (A3434) that can help. Or hire someone to do this; you'll probably save money in the long run, and you'll have a healthier lawn that doesn't need chemicals.

You'll also create a healthier environment. The EPA reports that 95% of lawn care chemicals are possible or probable carcinogens. And the National Cancer Institute reports that children living in households that use pesticides are 6.5 times more likely to develop leukemia.

Finally, leave your grass clippings on your lawn after mowing; this will return healthy nitrogen to the soil. If you rake your leaves to the street edge for pickup, make sure they stay out of the gutter and off sidewalks. Alternatively, leaves and grass compost rather well together.

Now imagine it's 2010. The city had hoped to build a pool 20 years ago, but it never happened. Instead, citizens took it upon themselves to learn how to maintain healthy lawns without chemicals, composted their yard waste, and pet owners flushed their pet waste down the toilet. Lake Monona and other lakes are now enormously popular. More beaches have been established. And more people now swim in the lakes than lie on the beaches!

Jim Winkle lives in the Bay Creek neighborhood, which is 90% surrounded by water (Monona Bay, Lake Monona, and Wingra Creek). He wants his 3-year-old daughter to be able to swim in Lake Monona without worrying too much if she gets a mouthful of water now and then. You can contact him at 259-1812 with any questions.

Since writing this article, I've learned that another significant source of lake water pollution is "winged waste". We've all fed ducks and geese our exra bread, but for the most part they just produce extra waste which contributes to high bacteria counts, which closes beaches in the summer.

Much of the historical information for this article came from David Mollenhoff's wonderful book MADISON: A History of the Formative Years.

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