Writer calls for long-term thinking about water quality

Writer calls for long-term thinking about water quality
Freshwater ecologist Stephen Carpenter is ankle-deep in Lake Mendota. He hopes to incorporate long-term thinking into cleaning up Yahara Lakes.

Progress on cleaning up lakes Mendota, Monona, Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa has been slow, despite fifty years of settled science on what’s causing the problem and significant effort invested in trying to improve water quality. Freshwater ecologist Stephen Carpenter has long wondered why.

“One conjecture I had is that people weren’t thinking at the right scale about the phosphorus problem. They think it’s a quick fix,” he says.

Carpenter, the director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Limnology, is part of a research team that is trying to get a handle on the barriers and bridges to fixing the phosphorus problem and other freshwater challenges in the Madison area. Funded by a five-year, $5 million research grant from the National Science Foundation’s Water Sustainability and Climate program, this effort aims in part to bridge one barrier that is hampering decisions about cleaning up the lakes: a deficiency in long-term thinking.

I am also part of this effort—a writer among a diverse team of researchers from UW–Madison. Our creative approach reflects that diversity of knowledge. We are using a set of scenarios called Yahara 2070, plausible stories about the future that are intended to help people grapple with the inherent uncertainty of the long term.

Our project downsizes the daunting global proportions of water security and climate change to a scale that matters to us all—the place where we live. By teasing out some options for facing these challenges on the home front and the consequences for future generations, we hope our study will challenge existing generations to expand their capacity to create a desirable future.

While the scenarios are a flagship component of the Water Sustainability and
Climate project, also known as WSC, our research includes a fleet of investigations into how the Madison area could cope with the long-term changes affecting our freshwater.

Our project’s lens extends beyond Madison’s borders to the entire Yahara Watershed, the land area that drains its surface water into the Yahara River, which runs through the Yahara lake chain. Despite its urban core, the watershed is nearly half agricultural.

This coexistence of city life and farm life is both an asset and a liability for regional quality of life. While urban activity and agricultural production drive our culture and economy, they also drive our water problems, especially the phosphorus one.

If you have a phosphorus problem, you have a long-term problem. And, boy, do we have a phosphorus problem. In many spots, there is too much of it in the soil, a surplus due largely to our farming heritage. There is also too much of it in the lakes, an imbalance from phosphorus-laden soil washing in with rain and snowmelt, which can lead to nuisance algal blooms.

The sluggish pace at which phosphorus cycles through the natural system, coupled with freshwater’s exquisite sensitivity to nutrient pollution, is what keeps us in hot water with the lakes.

But the phosphorus problem is like the center of a matryoshka doll, nested within layers of complicated and long-term issues influencing the health of our waters. Chief among them are what we are doing on land.

Eric Booth, a research scientist on the WSC project, paraphrases the son of one of Wisconsin’s conservation forefathers, Aldo Leopold, on the land-use implications.

“What Luna Leopold said about the interaction between water and land is something I go back to a lot—that is, the quality of our water is a reflection of how well we live on the land,” says Booth.

How we live on the land is also constantly changing. Shifts in land use that have led to the state of the lakes today go back over a century.

By 1880, the sodbusters had transformed three-quarters of the watershed’s native prairie and savannah into farmland. This conversion led to substantial erosion that sent tons of sediment into the lakes.

Dairy emerged in the mid to late nineteenth century as an alternative to wheat, Wisconsin’s earliest dominant cash crop that had met its demise by the 1870s. Dairy’s rise and intensification over the course of the twentieth century brought with it one of the biggest threats to poor water quality: too much manure. Today, cow pies and commercial fertilizers account for most of the phosphorus that is stored in the soil or leaks into the lakes.

On the urban front is Madison’s sordid past of dumping human waste into the lakes, which didn’t end until 1949, when lakeshore owners pushed the state Legislature to make it illegal to dump sewage into the Yahara lakes. Moreover, urban growth’s creeping tendrils of roads and swaths of asphalt have increased flooding risks and encroached on farmland, pushing dairy operations into smaller areas with fewer acres on which to put manure. Highly concentrated manure subsequently exacerbates runoff risks.

And then there’s climate change.

“Climate can intensify or just change the relationship between water and land,” says Booth.

In particular, more frequent heavy rainstorms, which have been on the uptick since the 1970s, can worsen the negative effects of the things we do on our land that compromise the health of our waters. For example, more big storms can lead to more big bursts of phosphorus runoff into the lakes.

The changing nature of our landscape creates a moving target that makes it harder to tackle the problems with our waters. In fact, Booth and two more WSC researchers published a study showing that many efforts to clean up the lakes have not been accounting for changes in land use, climate and agriculture, which helps explain why they have not been meeting their goals.

This is not to say efforts have been ineffective. Water quality has not gotten worse, and a report published this spring by the nonprofit Clean Lakes Alliance shows collective efforts to reduce phosphorus in 2014 moved the needle sixteen percent of the way toward the goal of a fifty percent reduction by 2025. Booth explains that the background noise of land-use, climate and agricultural changes necessitates doubling down on efforts to achieve this goal.

“The environment is changing, and the choices we make today are going to have consequences in our landscape for long into the future,” says Monica Turner, a professor of ecology and an expert in landscape ecology.

Even in the twenty-one years that she’s lived in Madison, Turner has seen a lot of changes. She has witnessed farmland near her neighborhood become housing developments and says she has felt the changes in climate. She also thinks the world will be very different for her children when they’re her age.

“I don’t think we can make good decisions about what we’re doing now without having a sense of what changes are coming and what the implications of the choices we make now will be,” says Turner.

Such decisions are riddled with tradeoffs, however, especially when it comes to the benefits we demand from the landscape to meet some of our most basic needs.

“As a society, we want water, we want food, we want recreation, we want all sort of different things produced by our landscape. But any particular piece of land can’t give you everything you want,” explains Turner.

In one study, Turner and a graduate student found tradeoffs between high crop production and good water quality in many parts of the watershed. In other words, it is difficult to find a piece of land that could give us high crop yields while not simultaneously polluting our groundwater, lakes and waterways with too many nutrients.

When she talks about the tradeoffs we face in the Yahara, project teammate Adena Rissman poses something provocative: Can we have clean lakes and ice cream, too?

“The problem of water quality is one that has been difficult to solve across the United States because pollution comes from so many sources and water is valued by so many people,” says Rissman, an associate professor of environmental policy and management.

People also value ice cream and cheese, and the 30,000 dairy cows that live in the Yahara Watershed are hard at work supplying that demand. Tradeoffs.

Rissman explains that the collective decision-making processes of governance and their outcomes are what help us navigate the potential tradeoffs associated with improving water quality. Moreover, people’s decisions and their perceptions of what works or doesn’t work interact with ecological factors, and teasing out these dynamics could point to opportunities for success.

For example, in one study Rissman and a graduate student compared where in the watershed conservation efforts, land-use restrictions and other policies to improve water quality are applied in relation to the biggest sources of phosphorus pollution. They discovered policies are missing some of the most problematic areas, an unintended consequence of a soup of social factors, including differing priorities between governing bodies.

“Decision makers need to have a response to both immediate crises and long-term shifts, but the kinds of responses available to them are conditioned by social and ecological factors that can sometimes lead us down pathways that make us miss our goals,” says Rissman.

But rather than letting changes, tradeoffs and unintended consequences drown us in a whirlpool of uncertainty, through Yahara 2070, the WSC project is trying to wrap some sense around the long-term future by showing an array of alternative pathways for sustaining land and water resources.

“The future is unfolding in almost infinite variety. There are some things beyond our control, but there are things that we do control and situations where we choose to take one fork in the road or another. Those opportunities to choose a path or control the way we confront the future are really important,” says Carpenter.

True, in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives—deadlines, budget cycles, planting season, soccer practice—opportunities to think about the future are rare. Yahara 2070 is a tool the WSC project created to help break that barrier.

Yahara 2070 uses a mix of stories and science to help people grasp what is possible for the future. Grounded in the human proclivity for using stories to understand long timespans, four illustrated stories depict what life in the Yahara Watershed could be like by 2070 if current generations made different decisions about how to live on the land and manage our freshwater in the face of climate change.

The stories are not our own fantasies about the future, however. They reflect ideas and themes extracted from interviews and workshops our team conducted with people from the watershed to learn about their visions for the future.

Advanced computer models enrich these stories with scientific data. The models simulate natural processes in relation to the stories and estimate what the consequences for future human well-being would be under each scenario—for example, how much food could the soil produce, how well could the land retain floods and how clean would the lakes be.

The scenarios are not predictions of the future. They are a framework for understanding long-term changes in land use, climate and human demand and their impacts, information that could improve decision making about the long-term health of local communities and ecosystems.

“People are tired of hearing about the bad news or doomsday scenarios. We are painting things in a more optimistic way—what do we need to do? What will most likely bring improvement in our water resources and how quickly will those changes come?” says Chris Kucharik, WSC team lead and professor of agronomy and environmental studies.

Carpenter admits that the problems we face are so complex there is not one, but many best ways out. And while his job as a scientist is to help people confront the choices they face and their logical consequences, it is up to the public to decide what path to take.

“I think that simply by exposing that range of options and driving discussion of those options, we can build resilience as a society,” he says.

Jenny Seifert is the science writer/outreach coordinator for the Water Sustainability and Climate project at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She also is a freelance writer.