Green in my back yard--an editorial

"Grey" infrastructure

"Green" infrastructure

On April 22, 1970, the modern environmental movement came of age with celebration of the first Earth Day, when 22 million Americans participated. This event was the brainchild of Wisconsin’s senator Gaylord Nelson. Back then, Madison was a leader.

Soon after, NIMBY became the rallying call--“Not In My Back Yard.” People fought the construction of power plants and garbage dumps in their neighborhoods, often with success. While this was better than keeping quiet to allow destruction of neighborhoods--which earlier had been the norm--there was a distinct whiff of selfishness. It was OK to participate in the throwaway culture--as long as the garbage dump was put somewhere else… in poor neighborhoods, where people wouldn’t complain.

Now neighbors of the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway are crying “Not in My Back Yard“… creating a big headache for public officials.  But are they traditional, selfish NIMBYs? I don’t think so.

We need these NIMBYs… they’re a little different. So let’s call them GIMBYs, for Green in My Back Yard.

Not so selfish

What’s different about GIMBYs is that neighbors want something positive. They are saying to the city: “We had a great backyard--a green and wild ravine--and now we want to make it even better. You can’t destroy this gem with tons of riprap rubble, and we don’t want you to destroy any other places like this in Madison.”

But the kind of “green infrastructure” needed in the ravine isn’t easy. If it were, we’d already have restored streams, rain gardens everywhere, and parking ramps with sod roofs. Green infrastructure requires new ways of thinking, new habits, and probably a bit more maintenance.

More maintenance?

For example, let’s consider the new terrace rain gardens recently installed near West High. Since they are planted with flowers, they may take a bit more care than just running a lawn mower over your grass.

Maintenance needed: rain garden intakes, were water flows from the gutter to the garden, need to be kept clear.

If we have a nicely landscaped plan for our greenway, along with rain garden pools in the channel, there’s going to be some maintenance. Someone will have to remove leaves and sediment from the pools. Someone will have to install soaker hoses and plant ferns, to make the place look like the verdant glen it could be.

Yet look at the chores we already accept. Shoveling snow nearly every day. Mowing the lawn once a week. Rolling out the garbage. Many of these chores can be farmed out to 21st century business. Already we have a local company manufacturing rain barrels. ChemLawn will morph into the “Rain Man.” A guy in India can’t install your rain barrel.

The green infrastructure is going to take a little more know-how, at least at first. Right now, people don’t know exactly what to do--or what to plant in the rain garden. Neighbors can show neighbors how--or you can hire an expert to design your rain garden.

Stepping up to the plate

So if “green” takes a little more maintenance, and a little more know-how, we’ve all got to do our part. Neighbors need to do more than just whine “not in my back yard.” They need to step forward, as they have done so far, to show what they are willing to do. Neighbors should help with sediment removal, minor erosion control, planting, and invasive species control in the restored ravine.

Likewise, the City needs to seize this opportunity to experiment with new ways of handling storm water. The City needs to understand that a little ongoing maintenance of the greenway will be needed. Neglect of that maintenance is what led to erosion that is threatening the sewer today.  If the City can patch a street, they can patch a greenway.  The City needs to be willing to spend more than just the minimum on this greenway, because it’s the opening shot in the battle for a green future.

With green infrastructure, every location is unique. Here the rain flows one way. There, it goes a different way. That makes it harder for planners and engineers. They need to be willing to work with residents to find local solutions--green solutions. Neighborhoods willing to test new ideas are needed. That’s what our greenway issue is about.

Here we have an ideal situation. The neighbors are aroused! They want to work with the city in a positive way, to find new ways of solving old problems. Let’s hope the City is up to the challenge--and willing to invest more time, energy, and money into our greenway. Let’s make it the best possible example… for the future.

*   *   *
Photo captions
Top left: The burial of Westmarland stream--the old way of handling stormwater.
Top right: Stormwater channel in median of Cherokee Drive. 
Photos by David Thompson

What motivates a city to be green?

Philly's bold plan

I was astonished to read a few days ago about Philadelphia's amazing plan to transform the city into a green sponge that absorbs most of the rain that falls. (See my previous post.)  As I read more about it, and what other cities are doing to create "green infrastructure," it became clear that Madison--as a city--is no leader in this field. I wondered why, and what it might take to motivate Madison to catch up.

Philadelphia is undertaking this 1.6 billion dollar plan to create a green city, because any other plan would be much more expensive. That's because Philly, like many cities, has combined sanitary and storm sewers. When it rains, the storm waters overwhelm the sewage plants, causing them to dump raw sewage into nearby waterways. The EPA has ordered them to clean up.

Madison doesn't have this problem. So building green infrastructure to keep our lakes looking like the photo below will be a hard sell for people who don't enjoy water sports. It may cost more than the old way of burying our streams and paving everything in sight. Even if it doesn't cost more, it's going to require new habits, new ways of thinking about water. How to motivate this revolution?

Madison--how we'd like to see ourselves?

When I took this photo over 20 years ago, it became the most popular overview of Madison--a best-selling post card, a poster, a book cover, front page on the Capitol Times, and a mural at the Marriott Hotel.  Evidently, Madisonians thought this view represents who we are.

Before I took the photo, I thought about an angle on the city that would show the capitol with the most green and blue around it.  I hired a plane on the clearest day possible, at the height of fall colors.  So really, this photo is... hype.

And yet, it does represent a possibility...

Madison, the Oasis

For years in a row, Madison was judged the most livable small city.   But crime and some other blemishes knocked us off the top.  It's time to reclaim that spot by becoming the nation's greenest (and bluest) city.  We already have many parks, bikeways, lakes, and that amazing capitol on the hill.

We can persuade the public to choose green infrastructure for the benefits it brings to each neighborhood--more trees and flowers--cool and leafy nooks.   Porous pavements can have an attractive texture.  Storm water channels, done right, can become little gardens with waterside pathways.  People strolling nearby will hear rushing water for days after a storm.  On summer days, office workers can visit these spots for a picnic lunch.

In short, green infrastructure isn't just for the lakes.  It's not just for storm water.  Green infrastructure can create pleasing variety, beautify each neighborhood, and lure kids away from TV.

Green infrastructure is for people.


"Green Infrastructure"--a revolutionary new plan for Philadelphia's stormwater

"Green... infrastructure is a stormwater management tool that focuses on the use of vegetation to collect and treat stormwater as opposed to using man made components such as drains, pipes and treatment plants. It essentially allows Mother Nature to do her job naturally and brings a little green benefit to the city at the same time."  Arrus Farmer, for PlanPhilly.


Below: one example of "green infrastructure."
Permeable paving on an alleyway in Chicago. EPA photo.

Madison has much to learn from other communities.  Below I'll reprint a few paragraphs from a long story (12/24/09) by Taryn Luntz on Greenwire.  I recommend you read the full story on the New York Times here.
*   *   *
Philly's bold vision

"Philadelphia has a groundbreaking idea about what to do with stormwater: Use it to feed grass and trees instead of letting it rush into the sewers.

The concept may seem obvious. But for most cities, a stormwater management plan that doesn't expand sewers or treatment plants is counterintuitive."
Philadelphia is proposing to "invest $1.6 billion to turn a third of the city green in the next 20 years. The plan involves replacing streets, parking lots and sidewalks with water-absorbing porous pavement, street-edge gardens and trees.

'We want to do anything we can do to return us as close as possible to the way nature intended the water cycle to be,' said Howard Neukrug, director of the Philadelphia Water Department's watersheds office. 'But we need to do that within the context of a city that is fully grown, with incredible impervious cover everywhere.'

Philadelphia is examining a number of options, Neukrug said, including digging up streets, planting trees and redesigning tree pits and curbs to trap water before it reaches sewer inlets. The city also may push for green roofs, rain barrels and other water-conserving measures for new and existing homes and buildings.

'We recognized that if we manage stormwater where it lands, whether on the ground or on a roof, that in very many circumstances we can not only prevent that gallon of water from overflowing, but we may be able to find additional benefits for our customers,' Neukrug said. 'Things that impact the urban heat island effect, things that improve the aesthetic of a community.'"

The entire city--a rain garden

Here's what freelance writer Korky Koroluk has to say about Philly's vision:  "The plan reimagines the city as an oasis of rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavements, thousands of additional trees, and more. The idea is to turn the city into a giant sponge to absorb as much rainwater as possible and delay the rest in its journey to the nearby Delaware and Schuykill rivers."

"None of the ideas are new. What’s new is the scale proposed, and that has large cities across North America watching closely."
"The city has been shopping the plan around to neighbourhood groups and, while they met with some opposition, they were astounded to find a high level of enthusiasm for it. There are long-term savings to be had, so residents — so far, at least — seem willing to pay the additional $8 per month per household to pay for it."  More

Madison... let's get started!

Philadelphia will test the new green infrastructure techniques in several neighborhoods.  Makes sense--you have to start somewhere.  Sunset Village would be an ideal place to begin building green infrastructure in Madison.  And let's start with the best possible green plan for our ravine.

Find out more about Green Infrastructure

The Green Streets Handbook from EPA. 
Wikipedia article on green infrastructure.
Green Infrastructure statement from the EPA.
"Waterbucket" article on Philly plan.
Philly's Green City, Clean Waters plan.

Home page of this blog, where you can find more on green infrastructure


Our watershed--an outdoor lab for neighborhood schools?

Our greenway is within walking distance of two neighborhood schools.  If local schools were to adopt the greenway as an outdoor laboratory, it would accomplish two important things:
  • show children how their lifestyles impact nature in the greenway.
  • justify the expense of a better plan for our greenway.
Schools could teach a "hands on" stewardship of a practical kind, suited to an urban landscape, rather than about pristine nature.

What's unique about our situation is that we have an entire little watershed within the community, with the affected lakes nearby.

Educating children is the only way we can achieve the real and lasting changes that are needed in the 21st century.

Possible activities in the greenway or at the school
  • Monitor for mosquito larvas in pools
  • Compare how rain barrels plus soaker hoses increase vegetation, vs no rain barrels
  • Use shallow wells to monitor groundwater levels
  • Keep track of the amount of streamflow relative to weather
  • Monitor the kind of debris trapped by a grid/filter
  • Monitor chloride or other pollutrants
  • Make rain gardens at the school
An example from Ohio

The Greenacres Foundation is located in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Greenacres Water Quality Project is a "community outreach project that works with school groups, citizens, environmental organizations, local communities, government agencies, and youth organizations to educate them about water resource issues and to work with them to preserve and protect water resources." They seek the "involvement of school children, families, and adults in water quality issues."

"The Water Quality Project began as an interdisciplinary real-world, “hands-on” science and environment education program. This School-based, Community-linked Monitoring project began in 1992 with several goals:
  • To monitor and protect water quality
  • To enhance science and math education in schools
  • To integrate schools, local governing bodies, and other organizations for the purposes of sharing information and improving the quality of local streams.


Woman to row across the Atlantic in campaign for clean water

"A year or so ago, a young woman from Mentor, Ohio, swam the entire length of the Allegheny River. Katie Spotz, an endurance athlete, felt compelled to raise awareness of the global problem of lack of access to clean drinking water. Her epic swim, according to her charity Blue Planet Run, represents the four-mile hikes women and children in developing nations often take each day just to collect drinking water. After her river swim, she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that she wasn't done there. Her next feat would be a solo row across the Atlantic Ocean. If she succeeds, she will, at 22, become the youngest person and the first American to cross an ocean in a rowboat. She will also have raised enough funds to secure fresh water for at least 1,000 people in developing nations."  More


My personal reflections on the proposals concerning the Greenway offered us by the city on November 30th . . . by Kathleen McElroy

Dec. 16, 2009
In the choices offered us concerning the Greenway, I feel we have been given a Mafia-style offer: “We are making you an offer you can’t (i.e. don’t dare) refuse. We’ll let you keep your open water but you have to agree to a complete replacement of the sewer.”

Option 1, of course, put the storm water in a pipe.

With the city’s option 3, I saw no serious effort to build an option around reconstruction rather than repair of the sewer. Although it would save our trees, the Option 3 presented to us was irresponsible, unprofessional, and dangerous. There was no serious, complete repair of the sewer offered. Nor was there any serious attempt to curb the erosion problem which threatens both the sewer and our properties.

Option 3 was so inconsequential to the city that at the meeting, Lisa couldn’t even find the display copy of the engineering design for that option when she went looking for it on the front wall of the meeting hall. An ironic moment.

An attempt to substitute a modified, and more serious, option 3 (Option 4) was met with similar scorn: the city argued once again that covering the sewer to the appropriate depth would kill more trees than replacing (they have never documented the number of trees involved); and armoring/reinforcing rather than replacing the water channel can’t be done because they can’t get equipment in there to do it.

It looked to me as if all three City Engineers were there for one reason – to direct us to make a “choice” in which the sewer was completely replaced. They deftly achieved their goal.

What we won, what we lost, and what remains... by Kathleen McElroy

Dec. 16, 2009
  • their attention (no small feat)
  • the discovery of many delightful neighbors of like mind and like values, with a shared passion for citizen activism and for protecting the rustic nature of our valley

The issue here appears to have been city access to the sanitary sewer. We asked in our “Friends of the Greenway” proposal that they “reconsider the scale of access required for maintenance and repair, and develop access options appropriate to a narrow ravine running between long-established private home back yards”. They appear to have figured out how to access the sewer without creating a road through the valley.

No 12-ton, big green Vactor truck will be traveling through our back yards.


We asked “Save the trees”. We appear to have saved trees that the city originally planned to cut down.

Under the option offered us which is likely to be implemented, Option #2, we appear to save about 250 inventoried living trees out of the 304 trees identified as being within the possible/permissible construction zone.

( Remember, however, that the arborist was instructed to inventory only trees 3" or larger. The smaller trees, not included in the inventory, are the future of this valley. So the tree loss, once one includes small trees, will be greater than the 54 which the city has identified.

( However, by the same reasoning, we will also be saving the small trees outside the Option #2-defined construction zone, trees not included in the inventory. So the number of saved trees is larger than the estimated 250 trees inventoried.

Other major tree-saving achievements:
  • Lining two major sewer branches (the original plan included replacing these branches) running through three residents’ yards. We asked “add a liner to the sewer pipe”. The city’s choice to line at least the two branches saves ancient oak trees, and several other major trees. The oaks are original inhabitants of the oak savanna which was here before the houses were built.    Lining the sewer branches also saves extensive homeowner landscaping within those yards.
  • No construction of a new sewer branch (included in the original plan) built between 4338 Upland (our property) and 205 Midvale. That sewer branch would have destroyed 8 trees, a fence, and a shed.
  • Six of seven mature honeysuckles at the end of the valley are saved. (The original plan was to cut them down.) These provide screening from Midvale for the homeowners there, as well as for property owners farther down the valley.
  • A defined construction path that appears to be more narrow than originally planned, saving innumerable trees. 
We asked for “a single-lane construction path”. A careful analysis of the city’s original plan vs. the November 30th Option #2 suggests that the construction path is intermittently narrowed. Because few trees were identified on the map of the plan first offered us months ago, it is difficult to identify the number of trees saved by the narrowing of the construction zone – but the number appears to be significant (thank you, Engineering).

It is unclear whether the contract bid will specify single-path construction. The section detail presented by the city at the bottom of the Option #2 map suggests that the city can choose to use single-path construction (instead of creating a construction road parallel to the installation channel) to replace the sewer and install the water channel.

* A contractor-obvious designation of the construction parameters (perhaps a snow fence) will be installed by the city (per an email to David Newby from Alder Chris Schmidt on December 12th.). This will help assure that contractors do not stray outside the agreed-upon construction zone and damage additional trees and plantings on the hillsides.


We asked “keep the open water flowing.”

Our storm water will not be forced into an underground pipe. The nature of the resulting (very welcome) water flow is undetermined. So there is much work to do yet to assure that our valley hosts a congenial, aesthetically pleasing storm water flow. We do not want ragged-edge, ugly riprap dumped the length of the open water stream.


We asked “stop any remaining erosion problems within city-owned property and easements.”

The city appears confident that the installation of a well-built storm water riprap channel will correct the erosion problems within city property. City responsibility for, and action concerning, the collapse of easement-area and private property hillsides because of the erosion in the city-owned property has yet to be resolved.



We asked that the city line the sanitary sewer and repair any defects, including replacing the fill washed away from the buried pipe and laterals. This would avoid the necessity of the significant environmental damage resulting from open-cut wholesale sewer replacement. And, if done professionally and well, lining and repair would have given us a healthy, well-functioning sewer for years to come.

The city appeared to make no serious effort to present an option to us that, through repair rather than replacement, would create a reliable, effectively-functioning main sewer. (Examination of the current laterals found them to be generally sound.)

We had little choice but to select an option that included replacement of the sewer pipe and laterals – a choice that will bring significant destruction to our valley. (“Open-cut” means a large, deep construction gash in the valley, and up the sides of the hills where the laterals will be replaced. ) At least 54 trees will be lost, including 31 of them from the dense stand at the west end of the valley. This is the stand of trees that protects much of the valley from the sight and sound of Midvale Blvd. Without these trees, the significant and increasing sound of Midvale traffic will roll right up the valley.


We left the November 30th meeting with significant unanswered questions and incomplete plans for the future of our valley. These issues can be summarized under:
  •  storm water management
  •  erosion control
  •  tree preservation
  •  landscaping, remediation, and habitat restoration 
There will be another community meeting (per an email to David Newby from Alder Chris Schmidt). I have been hearing from you about the outstanding and unresolved issues, and the action agenda that remains. David Thompson has been doing some especially detailed work on this.

Based on what I have been hearing, I expect to be assembling a consensus proposal on these issues from Friends of the Hillcrest Upland Greenway I will circulate it to you for your review, comment and approval – and will then, with revisions based on your comments, submit it to the city prior to the next community meeting.


Season's Greetings!

Snowman on Lewis Ct., Madison, WI.


Old standards aren’t good enough anymore

Yesterday, a disturbing story appeared in the New York Times about the safety of our drinking water. Today I’m going to talk about the story’s implications.  I see this story as a metaphor--a lesson about how standards are changing--how they HAVE TO change.

And that, I think, is what the greenway controversy is really about. The old standards for storm water engineering won’t be good enough for the 22nd century.

Wait, was that a typo?  No--the greenway repairs will last for 100 years. That brings us to the year 2110.…the 22nd century. Sobering.

Madison in the 22nd century

If we get a bad plan for the greenway, we're stuck with it for a hundred years.  To be a good plan, it needs to work both now and in the future.

Without invoking crystal balls, it’s likely our future Madison will be:

  • More dense--more people, and more sources of pollution;
  • Open country will be further away;
  • Transportation will be a lot more expensive (so maybe recreation will be closer to home).
These trends suggest that we’ll find our lakes, or parks, and our greenways ever more important… at the same time they will be under greater threat from population and pollution.

This may sound depressing to some. But I’m not ready to throw in the towel and leave a more polluted and tattered world to my children. That sentiment is what’s motivating many greenway supporters to fight for better plans.

Among other things, I’ve advocated a watershed approach for the greenway--along with funds budgeted for advanced rain gardens.  When I suggested the “watershed approach” to Lisa Coleman of City Engineering, she replied that, if they waited for action at the watershed level, they’d never get anything done.  I can appreciate her need as an engineer to “get things done.” That’s her job.

So it’s our job, as citizens, to make sure that the system is overhauled so that it CAN address the issue at a watershed level. And that may involve improving citizen input into the Board of Public Works. They are “the Boss,“ because they approve the storm water budget.

It used to be we could just throw our garbage in the nearest stream, and the currents would take it away… to somewhere else. That day’s long gone. Today, the world is so crowded, and problems so complex, that the way forward seems bewildering.

But as challenges increase, our tools are improving as well. We have better science today, and we have the benefits of computers in looking for solutions. The main thing for citizens to realize is… that we have to keep raising the ball. The old standards simply won’t do any more.

And now for some examples...

Tap water is legal but may be unhealthy

The thrust of the NY Times article is that “the 35-year old federal law regulating tap water is so out of date that the water Americans drink can pose what scientists say are serous health risks--and still be legal. Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 60,000 chemicals are used within the US.”

The head of Los Angeles’ water supply says, “We work very hard to give this city the cleanest water in the state.  But water sources are getting more polluted. If we just do what’s required, it’s not enough.”

At the EPA during the Bush administration, scientists tried to point out the dangers of contaminants that were unregulated, but industry lobbyists fought back. “’It’s hard for me to describe the level of anger and animosity directed at us for trying to publish sound, scientific research that met the highest standards,’ Dr. Preuss said.”

The state of the nation’s drinking water is one example of how we are falling behind--because we are not tightening standards as the world becomes more crowded.

Likewise, storm water standards have to be tightened. Here’s a small example.

Erosion control on Pheasant Branch

A week ago, I reported on how Middleton is improving erosion control of the stream banks, a much needed improvement, with some innovative approaches.

In the process of poking around the area, I found a ravine that had been stabilized by riprap.

Pheasant Branch erosion control--rock to last a thousand years.

What amazed me about this little project was the huge amount of riprap, with several dams, and bales of rock, held together in wire baskets. Probably the engineers involved felt they were doing the right thing. Once they had the trucks lined up, they might as well dump enough rock there to last a thousand years.

The erosion did need to be stopped, for the health of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, and the health of the Lake Mendota. But this is yet another example of destroying nature to save nature. Our engineering standards have to be more precise and surgical. Dumping tons of rubble into a tiny ravine is no longer good enough.

It reminded me of how they destroyed the last stretch of ailing Westmorland Creek to save Lake Wingra. Pardon the comparison to the health care debates, but that’s like "pulling the plug" on Grandma, just because she gets a little constipated. Our standards have to be higher.

Mono Lake versus Los Angeles

Mono Lake is a starkly beautiful, otherworldly lake in the desert, just east of Yosemite National Park. When I visited Mono last summer, I learned about the struggle lasting three decades to save Mono Lake.

Mono Lake, 2.5 times saltier than the ocean, is teeming with life.

The lake--about 20 miles across, is 2.5 times more salty than sea water. Only two kinds of animals live in the lake--brine shrimp and salt flies. But their populations are vast, providing food for untold millions of migrating birds. Since the lake has no outlet, it exists in a delicate balance between mountain creeks that feed it, and evaporation from its surface.

Mono Lake began to dry up, after Los Angeles tapped its sources.

Years ago, Los Angeles began diverting water for municipal use from the creeks that feed Mono Lake. As evaporation exceeded inflow, lake levels dropped steadily, threatening to turn the lake into a source of toxic dust storms, and destroy the entire ecosystem, migrating birds included.

Finally, environmentalists succeeded in stopping the water diversions, and lake levels stabilized. Creeks flowing into the lake were restored, and once again they became wonderful places to fish.  To prevent harmful consequences for LA, conservationists worked to conserve at least as much water in LA as LA would lose from stopping diversions from Mono Lake.

Nevertheless, LA began to experience water problems, because now it had to rely more on groundwater from the nearby San Fernando Basin, and other more polluted sources.
The San Fernando basin was the home of industrial pollution so severe it had been named a Superfund Site, and as pollution spread underground, the city had to abandon 40% of its wells there.

Next, the city discovered that, although water leaving its treatment plants seemed safe because it met standards, dangerous bromates were showing up in the tap water. It turned out that sunlight, shining on the storage reservoirs, was converting relatively harmless chemicals into dangerous ones.

So the city dumped two million dollars of black balls onto the surface of a reservoir, to block the sun’s rays. That set off howls of rage from nearby affluent homeowners, who liked the view of blue waters more than they liked the scum of black balls on the surface.

The point--as the world grows more crowded, attempts to save one area can lead to problems in another. And in Madison--attempts to save Lake Mendota from erosion are leading to the destruction of wildlie and trees in our ravine. The solution isn’t easy. It requires us to raise our standards, be more thoughtful, and take a wider view--a watershed approach.  That way, everyone can be a winner.

We’re doing this for our children, so it makes sense… to get them involved.

More bells and whistles
Mono Lake Committee--a fabulous website!
Slide show on Mono Lake
Slide show of riprap mentioned above
New York Times slide show on water quality


Lake Wingra

Stoughton tornado cloud, seen from Lake Wingra.
Copyright by David Thompson

How to use the web--to save our greenway

This blog has been a journey of discovery for me.  As I find out new things, from crawling into pipes, or crawling on the web, I'll share them with you.

Here's why I think our cause is important, and worth the effort.
  • What happens in this greenway will set standards for the whole city, about how to protect those priceless little spots where children play, and where adults relax with nature.
  • We can stop the pollution of our lakes, and return them to health.
  • We can turn around a bureaucracy hell-bent on burying every last stream, and make it more responsive.
  • We can attack the problems of the greenway from a watershed perspective--one that makes more sense.
I've been discovering how we can use the web, both to save the trees in the greenway, and to promote these larger goals.  Here's a recipe for how you can join our web-based network... to get out the word!  The people who set up this site have already made a good start.

Recipe for web action
  1. Open an account on Facebook or on Twitter.  It can take only a few minutes--or a few hours, if you go to the trouble to put in a photo, and add as many contacts as you can.  When something important happens about the Greenway, then you broadcast it to all your contacts on Facebook or Twitter.  If you have more photos or information to share than fits on Facebook or Twitter, you can post them on Blogspot as I do.  All these sites are free.
  2. Visit local forums on the web, listed below. On these forums, you can post comments, or leave photos, links, and  information.  Each of these sites has a number of forums or chat lines.... You have to find the right forum--where people receptive to our message hang out.  Think of a forum as a local coffee shop.
  3. Take photos (or collect other mementos) related to the greenway.  Remember how powerful Craig Miller's letter was?  Send these out by Facebook, or post them on forums.
  4. Keep an e-mail list of friends and acquaintances.  Subdivide it--one for hard-core people, one for all neighbors, etc.  I find that e-mail gives a better response because it demands attention.  But use it sparingly, only when you have something important to say.
  5. We all need to specialize.  Someone to photograph wildlife in the greenway.  Someone to monitor trees when construction begins, someone to collect research materials....     It takes time to cruise each web forum on a regular basis, so we should have one person working each forum.  Tell me what you want to do--I'll make a list.
  6. Scan the newspapers, web, and community for relevant info and events.  Think how they apply to our cause, then let us know.
  7. There are more imaginative things we can do--like set up a webcam to monitor construction in the greenway.  Or podcasts.  Any takers?
If you follow even some of these steps, together we'll set up a powerful community to make our voice heard!

I don't mean to say the web is the only way to go.  I know that some of our neighbors don't even have computers, so of course, door-to-door action, lawn signs, contacting your representative, and talking to neighbors are all important.

List of local forums (partial)

For any of these, you start by setting up an account.  It takes just a minute.

The Daily Page
Craig's List  Yes, they do have community discussion groups.
Caffeinated Politics
Madison.com  This is really the same site as the two papers listed below.
The Capital Times  There are comments after each story--so find a story related to our cause, and make a post.
Wisconsin State Journal  Same comment.
WKOW-TV  Same as newspapers.  Find a relevant news story or blog, then post a comment.
Madison Forum
UW Madison Forum

Not as useful?

WPT  (Wisconsin Public Television)  If there's a relevant show, or if there's something relevant on their blog, then you can leave comments.
The Business Forum  "A professional organization for women who want to expand their network of meaningful business connections and to make a difference in other women's lives."  Not sure if they have a web forum, but I'm sure they would be interested in helping in some way.
CleanTech Though Leaders Community Forum  ??


Unseen, beneath our feet

Click on photos to enlarge them.  Or see slide show here.

Recently, I opened the beautiful booklet put together by the Friends of Lake Wingra, about that lake.  There were some colorful maps showing the watershed of Lake Wingra.  I was fascinated to notice that the watershed for the surface runoff is a little different from the watershed for the groundwater.

The water from rain gardens in much of Sunset Village trickles to Lake Wingra.  But the surface runoff from only a corner of Sunset Village drains to Lake Wingra.  Instead, most of the surface runoff goes to Lake Mendota.  So your rain garden helps two lakes--it keeps dirty runoff out of Mendota, and replenishes springs that feed Wingra.

"Wingra's springs are a precious natural feature that can be viewed and enjoyed by the entire community.  Cool, clear water bubbling up from the ground enchants youngsters and instills a sense of wonder for the natural world.  On a hot summer day, a few minutes rest beside a cool spring can calm and rejuvenate us.

Spring water entering the lake year-round improves water quality and provides a unique habitat for many plants and animals.  In winter, wildfowl flock to the open water and animals come to drink. 

Groundwater makes up about a third of Lake Wingra's source-water," and helps keep Wingra Creek flowing.*

But because urbanization causes water to run into storm sewers rather than sinking into the ground, the flow of springs around Lake Wingra has declined.  The map below shows the location of active springs that ring the lake.

The red dots show locations of active springs.

Because groundwater is the same cool temperature year-round, the air around the springs is delightfully cool in summer, while  in deepest winter, the spring sustains a patch of green.

Big Spring, on the south shore, is so large it forms a creek you can navigate in a canoe.  If you go there early on a summer morning with a picnic breakfast, the mist hangs over the creek.  As you enter the mouth of the creek, it's as if you are stepping into a cooler.

In winter, the beaver like to swim in the water of the creek that always remains open.  They will emerge and travel on the ice along the shore of Lake Wingra, alternately running and then tobogganing on their bellies.

The unseen world

While these springs are spectacular for themselves, they are more--the sole evidence to someone out for a walk of the unseen biosphere beneath our feet.  It's a paradox--we stand on solid ground, and yet it's the surface of an ocean as well. 

The trickling, percolating waters down there are alive.  Coating the surface of every grain of sand and gravel is a film of bacteria that purifies the contaminants urban stormwater.  Probably most of the top mile of rock that girds this planet is actually alive with bacteria.  Some of them metabolize so slowly they would seem to be in suspended animation.  Individual bacteria could be thousands of years old--and maybe much older.

The only other evidence is the water that comes from your tap, pumped by the city from the same mysterious world beneath our feet.   It's a commons--a resource for all.  Nurture your commons.

Spring on the NW shore near Arbor Drive.

Spring just S of the one above--it's twin.
The green is mostly watercress.  Peppery flavor, makes good  soup!

Spring just S of Big Spring

Big Spring, seen from the trail in Gallistel Woods

Click here to take a photographic tour of the springs and their surroundings.  All photos 12/15/09 by David Thompson.

* Lake Wingra: a vision for the future.  By Friends of Lake Wingra, 2009.  You can download a copy of the document here.


Written comments on greenway due tomorrow morning

If you are in a hurry, you can cut, paste, and modify my comments, given below:
Hillcrest/Upland Greenway
Public Information Meeting
November 30, 2009
Comment Sheet
City, State, Zip: Madison, WI
Telephone Number:
Email Address:

I prefer: (indicate which one you support)
Option 2 – Replace Sanitary Sewer via open-cut, Rebuild Channel and line with riprap
…but only with certain additions to the plan listed below:

I reside at or own property directly adjacent to the proposed project:
No . But this project affects similar areas by setting precedents and standards.

Comments: I can support Option 2 only if most of the following features are added to the plan, and presented in detail at a final meeting before work begins. I consider the first four to be most important.
  1. A series of rock dams and pools along the ravine to slow floodwaters & serve as rain gardens. The top pool should be situated where a pool currently forms, and built in a way so wildlife will have a place to drink. (The dams just W of Valley Creek Circle by Pheasant Branch Conservancy are an example.) The dams will add diversity--good for wildlife and for aesthetics. Riprap lightly between dams if necessary. Volunteers can periodically empty leaves from the basins.
  2. Field stones instead of limestone for the riprap.
  3. Better landscaping, including planting saplings to replace lost trees. Diversity!
  4. Add funds to the greenway budget that could be used to promote rain gardens upstream. It makes no sense to focus on one aspect of storm water control (the channel) without addressing problems in the basin above the channel. What harm is there to budget for rain gardens, and let residents initiate the process? Also, consider the possibility of several small retention basins upstream, such as just below the bridge at the park.
  5. Special efforts to safeguard trees at the edge of the construction zone.
  6. Good follow-through of the project, including landscaping and cleanup.
  7. A contract with penalties for contractor if they cause damage outside the construction zone.
  8. Funds for rain barrels and soaker hoses, facilitating plant growth to make the ravine more resistant to erosion and more aesthetic.
  9. A strainer at the lower end to catch dead leaves, so the city can periodically remove them.
  10. Remediation--restore some of the habitat lost to riprap
Suggestion: Do not overdesign the riprap, as has been done in many places. Instead, work for improvements (rain gardens, basins) upstream, so storm water is reduced in the future.

Mail or deliver to: Lisa Coleman, City of Madison Engineering Division, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Room 115, Madison, WI  53703.


Option 2 needs to be fleshed out and presented at another meeting--by David Newby

I'm reprinting here a letter from David Newby to the Mayor.  At the November 30th meeting, Lisa Coleman, in response to a question, agreed to hold another meeting, where additional details about the plan will be presented and discussed.

Lest we lose track of this, I am writing to confirm that there will be another community meeting concerning the plans for the major changes in the current Greenway running between our homes on Hillcrest and Upland Drives.

The community meeting on November 30th, in reality, consisted largely of Engineering's presentation of their proposals. There was little time left for our questions and discussion concerning the specifics of the plans, especially of plan #2 which seems to be the default position.

Improvements needed to Option 2--some examples
  • Will the bid specify the size of the equipment used?
  • How will the permissible construction corridor be defined to the contractors? Will there be a fence? Will it be cordoned off in some fashion? Will there be aggressive supervision by Engineering staff?
  • Will there be penalties for property damage outside the construction zone, and will the penalties be sufficiently large to serve as incentive for careful work in that narrow valley? (those fragile hillsides simply cannot tolerate additional damage) 
Details needed on riprap

Engineering's decision to give us an open stream option was very welcome - thank you.  Concerning the riprap to be used in the water channel: In an email to my wife prior to the meeting, Alder Schmidt assured us that " the details of the riprap are something we can talk about at the meeting." We did not have opportunity to do that.

We need a discussion of the quality, density and placement of the riprap. The photo presented at the meeting of the riprap in the southwest bike way water channel was especially alarming. As was Lisa's statement that the laying of the riprap would probably entail a dump truck backing its way out of the channel and leaving piles of stone behind it as it pulled away.

The riprap discussion needs to include photos of exactly what kind of stone will be used (remember, this is our back-yard, not an isolated ravine far from regular public view). We also need more detail on how it will be installed -- dumped in a heap? Installed with some care along the water path?  Will special attention be paid to the "corners" of the channel where the water is most likely to continue to cause erosion?

A detailed riprap plan should be an explicit part of the project bid, so that both we and Engineering are clear on what is expected to happen. It should include the type of stone to be used, and the processes by which it will be installed.

A complete project proposal

At this next meeting also, we need to see a proposal that encompasses the project as a whole. What we saw on November 30th were Engineering's plans for their responsibilities in the Greenway. As Lisa put it, "We only do infrastructure."

What we need to see for our review and comment, BEFORE THE PROJECT BEGINS, is a complete plan. Any complete plan for the work to be done in the Greenway and in our backyards should include who exactly will be responsible for restoring the site to its rustic beauty, how will that be done, how will it be funded, and what is the time frame.

Will landscaping and site restoration be included in Engineering's bid? Will it be in a separate bid? We want to see a detailed landscaping plan design, and a detailed bid prepared, prior to the onset of the project. Last time, the promised landscaping never took place. This way , it is assured to happen.

As Pam Minden pointed out so eloquently at the meeting, the issue here is, of course, that the Valley is not just a sewer -- it is our home.

We look forward to a full work proposal, one in which the Engineering work is only one portion, a proposal that includes the specific processes by which the Greenway will be repaired and rebuilt once Engineering leaves.


Obituary--Pogo Possum dies by hit-and-run accident

Pogo Possum, a cartoon personality and one of the last surviving members of the “Okefenokee Eleven,” died December 5.  Mr. Possum brought blue-eyed cheer and soft satire to millions of Americans during the dark years of the Cold War and the McCarthy Era. He was 66--an exceptionally advanced age for a marsupial.

He died the victim of an apparent hit-and-run accident on South Owen Drive in Madison, WI. In a bizarre turn of events, a pedestrian spotted his flattened body in the middle of the possum crossing, and took a cell phone photo, running off to summon the City’s animal body detail. But when they arrived, the remains had disappeared, leaving only a furry grease spot on the road. After several days of deliberation, the Cartoon Coroner pronounced him “out of print.” The SPCA is conducting an investigation.

Accident scene--the cell phone photo

Possum began work in the cartoon industry in 1943, soon growing into the rounder, baby-faced contours of Disney characters. He was famous for introducing political and social satire into comics. But satire led to his phone being tapped by the FBI, and some officials wondered whether the whimsical banter of Pogo and his friends was a code produced by Russian spies.  More

Pogo and his gang of Okefenokee misfits portrayed an ideal southern society, without species divisions.

His increasing popularity led to an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1952. His campaign slogan, “I go Pogo,” became an expression of protest. Perhaps the most famous quotation attributed to Mr. Possum is: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Possum’s longtime friend, Churchy LaFemme said: “That quote says it all… about why our lakes are in trouble.”

Churchy LaFemme was last seen headed south.
"This city ain't safe for critters."

In his later years, controversy swirled around his name, while partisans all but forgot the old marsupial himself. Legally, it’s Possum, but the National Association of Taxonomists long championed Opossum, while the Society of English Teachers campaigned for ‘Possum ( the apostrophe to signify the missing “O”). Meanwhile, the Irish claimed it was O’Possum. Next, proponents of Intelligent Design argued that, since opossums hadn’t changed in 60 million years, that meant evolution was dead.

Possum was close to his father, Walt Kelly, and after Kelly’s death in 1973, Pogo entered decline.

Possum moved to New Orleans, where locals failed to appreciated his gentle wit. With the destruction from Hurricane Katrina, Possum became a refugee, eventually moving to the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway, where he established residence in hollow tree #190.

Home in the greenway

Bucky Badger is one of the few who knew Possum during his last years in Madison. The two used to visit the Memorial Union after closing time, drinking leftover beer from discarded cups. Badger said, “He wasn’t very talkative… he’d just lean back against that wall, there, and look up at the sky. Kind of sad. He used to be even more famous… than I am. And now, he’s just a... varmint."

Some say Possum moved here with high hopes of starting a casino. According to Badger, Possum said: “We marsupials aren’t bound by any treaties. We’re the Original Americans--we’ve been here 12 million years, and I think that gives us some rights.” Possum thought there was enough traffic on Midvale Blvd to support a small casino in a hollow tree. Badger said, "It's ironic that the same traffic he dreamed about for the casino--that traffic’s what done him in.”

In recent weeks, neighbors say Possum was despondent over plans by the City to destroy the greenway as wildlife habitat. Possum’s tree was slated for demolition, and his favorite pool at the head of the ravine was going to be buried in riprap.

“Chewing some of those danged ribbons on trees was his last protest, before he gave up,“ said Churchy. “I think he just lost heart. Probably just stepped in front of a that car, if you know what I mean."
Despondent over greenway plans

Possum leaves no known survivors, although he is rumored to have many half siblings from his father’s days in the Disney Studios and Dell Comics. His stepmother Selby Kelly died in 2005, after several attempts to revive Possum’s following.

Neighbors of the greenway regret not knowing about the illustrious old marsupial living in their midst. They have pledged to remember Possum by revamping Madison’s Board of Public Works, to make it more responsive to the public.

Resident Liz McBride said, “Posthumously, he‘s still the Protest Possum. People are going to rally to save his hollow tree from the saw." The funeral date is to be announced.  Thousands are expected.

Tiptoeing over limestone riprap. Ouch.

All drawings except Bucky are by Walt Kelly (copyright OGPI), used here under "fair use" provision of law. Photos copyright by David Thompson


Why Improvements are needed for Option 2

Below I list improvements needed for Option 2, along with the reasons needed.  These reasons are support for arguments I made in a previous post that we should support Option #2, only if improvements are made to the option.

1. A final meeting to review detailed plans, including landscaping, before plans are finalized. Our support is contingent on what we hear at this meeting.
     Residents at the Nov. 30 meeting asked so many questions that the planned presentation could barely proceed.  Clearly, there were many questions left unresolved by the meeting.  Obviously, residents care about the details very much.  The city cannot expect residents to support one of the current options, unless more details are given.  There is much at stake in reaching a consensus--and consensus depends on the details.

Better landscaping than this is needed for our greenway project

2. Better landscaping, including planting saplings to replace lost trees. 
     When we say "better," we are referring to the lack of landscaping details in the current options, plus the dismal landscaping of previous projects, such as the ditch just north of the SW Bikeway (photo above), or the burial of Westmorland Stream.
     A look at the streambank stabilization of Pheasant Branch in Middleton shows the variety of creative techniques available when a city works with an experienced private contractor.  Pheasant Branch reinforces my impression that Madison's Engineering Dept. lacks experience with the kind of  "fine tuning" of landcaping needed for our greenway project.

3. Special efforts to safeguard trees at the edge of the construction zone.
     Last summer, street reconstruction on Spaight Street damaged trees so badly that some had to be cut down.  Some people felt it was the result of overly large equipment and inadequate contracting procedures.  To see photos of the damage, click here.
   Option #2 indicates that 66 trees will have to be cut.  But at the meeting, Lisa Coleman acknowledged that additional trees might succumb. With the map for #2 in hand, I went into the ravine.  While I didn't finish the job, I did identify at least one large tree that was within a few feet of the construction zone (see photo above).  We thought it probable this tree would die from root damage unless extra efforts were taken.

Rock dams would add variety for wildlife & restore groundwater

4. A series of rock dams and pools along the ravine to slow floodwaters & serve as rain gardens. See photo above.
     Variety is important to both wildlife and for aesthetics.  Riprap is destructive to wildlife because it is barren, uniform, and forces water underground.
     Option #2 could be greatly improved with the addition of a series of attractive rock dams that would create pools during storms, as well as diminish the erosive force of floods.  After the storm is over, these pools could serve as a series of rain gardens.
     The purpose of the pools is not to store waters from a large flood, because they wouldn't have sufficient volume.  Rather, they would provide water for wildlife, aesthetics for humans, and a way for rainwater to get back into the soil.  During a normal, moderate rain, it's possible that the series of pools would capture most of the runoff, for recharge of the groundwater.
    One can see such pools on the east side of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy, just west of Valley Creek Circle.  (These dams are different from the "vanes" in Proposal #3.)  More photos

5. Better cleanup.
     I have heard of cleanup problems at other construction sites.  My only direct experience is with the riprap just north of the SW Bikeway.  Although this project was supposed to solve erosion problems, erosion was still occurring at the edge of the woods and golf course upstream.  In other words, the job wasn't finished.

6. Field stones instead of limestone for the riprap (we need an ironclad commitment).
     The difference between sharp limestone rubble, and natural field stones (photo on right), is vast.  It would be tragic if, we learned after the project was completed, that "Sorry, field stones weren't available."  We need a firm commitment!

7. A contract with penalties for contractor if they cause damage outside the construction zone. 
     The problem with tree damage during reconstruction on Spaight Street has been blamed on the fact that Madison is unable to penalize contractors who damage trees.  Our project should wait until Madison has the procedures in place to penalize contractors.  If not, we may need to mount a "watch for the trees."

8. Funds for rain barrels and soaker hoses, facilitating plant growth to make the ravine more resistant to erosion.
     Neighbors who maintain gardens of native woodland plants know that dry summers can decimate their garden--and that "soaker hoses" are the answer.  If residents along the greenway have rain barrels linked to soaker hoses down in the greenway, then the greenway will be more lush and attractive.  Better plant growth will help prevent erosion.  New designs of rain barrels will allow them to be placed well away from your house, out by the edge of the greenway.

Dead leaves in ravine

9. A strainer at the lower end to catch dead leaves, so the city can periodically remove them.
     Leaves from the greenway should be removed periodically to prevent them (or their nutrients) from getting into the lake.  A filter at the lower end would allow the city to periodically remove them.  Resident volunteers can remove them from the rain gardens along the greenway.

10. Remediation--restore some of the habitat lost to riprap
     A series of dams and pools would be one way to increase habitat diversity.  Some large (hopefully hollow) logs should be left from the tree removal process.  With rain barrels, we may be able to create some wet "seeps."

11. A watershed approach--add funds to the greenway budget that could be used to promote rain gardens upstream.
     It makes little sense to try to prevent erosion from floodwaters within the ravine, while doing nothing in the watershed above the ravine to abate runoff.   The fact that Options #1-3 contain no watershed improvements is an example of Madison's outmoded thinking for handling storm water.   Obviously, watershed improvements will proceed more slowly--but at least funds should be included in this project, to get the ball rolling on watershed improvements, such as rain gardens and small impoundments for floodwaters.

Comments on Greenway due before Dec. 11

Please make your views known!  Here's a copy of the form for making comments.  There's no need to use a form if you put the details below into your written comments and send them to Lisa.  If you want a file of the form sent to you via email, you can contact Lisa Coleman at LColeman@cityofmadison.com .  Below you can find some info on this blog to help you decide.

Hillcrest/Upland Greenway
Public Information Meeting
November 30, 2009
Comment Sheet
City, State, Zip:
Telephone Number:
Email Address:

I prefer:   (indicate which one you support)
  • Option 1 – Replace Sanitary Sewer via open-cut, Install Storm Sewer Pipe, Fill over
  • Option 2 – Replace Sanitary Sewer via open-cut, Rebuild Channel and line with riprap
  • Option 3 – Rehabilitate (Line) Sanitary Sewer, Leave Channel as-is
I reside at or own property directly adjacent to the proposed project:

  • Yes
  • No
Comments:   (13 lines were provided on the form)

Please place this sheet in the comment box or fold it and mail to Lisa Coleman, at the address below. Please submit your comments before December 11, 2009.

Lisa Coleman
City of Madison, Engineering Division
210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Room 115
Madison, WI 53703

Erosion control on Pheasant Branch Creek, Middleton WI

I'm reporting on Pheasant Branch because of the creative methods used there.  It shows that when a city works with a firm experienced in restoration, they have access to a bigger bag of tricks. 

One of the three largest tributaries to L. Mendota, Pheasant Branch has been undergoing streambank repairs to protect the lake's water quality.  View N from Century Av.

"Pheasant branch Conservancy is a refuge for many kinds of wildlife and is enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year. Along with this use, the City actively manages the corridor along Pheasant Branch Creek to balance public use, while improving wildlife habitat and water resources.

In the creek corridor between Century Avenue and Park Street, the City worked with JFNew, and ecological consulting firm based in Verona, who designed and installed stream bank restoration measures using large root wads placed along the outer meander bend of the stream to deflect flows away from the bank while increasing habitat. These measures have resulted in improved stream habitat and provide an example of biologically-friendly stream stabilization measures.

Root wads are the dark masses, partially buried in the riprap. They slow waters, increase wildlife habitat, and help increase the angle of riprap.

From July 27-July 30, 2009, the city continued its work to stabilize and restore the corridor along Pheasant branch Creek. This type of erosion control has been used successfully along Pheasant branch in the past to mitigate against the high peak flows caused by large volumes of storm water runoff from impervious areas in the watershed. The chosen stabilization techniques increase habitat complexity such as small spaces found within rootwad composites which provide cover for small fish, as well as reptiles and small mammals found in the riparian habitat.

These techniques add structural diversity to the stream creating a variety of micro-flow conditions, enhancing aquatic invertebrate diversity by allowing benthic organisms to select specific positions with the geometry of the local flow conditions.

The native seed mix (see JFNew Dry Sandy Slope Mix) planted on these sites is full of species endemic to southern Wisconsin with deep extensive rooting systems. Once established, the dense roots of these native grasses and forbs will trap and hold bank material in place, further reducing erosion of bank sediments while increasing the biotic diversity of the riparian corridor. Local residents, other municipalities, and agency staff have praised this work for its beneficial re-use of natural woody materials and its incorporation of habitat improvements.

Root wads stabilizing bank of Pheasant Branch

For more information on this project contact: Aaron Steber, Ecological Resource Specialist, JFNew , 608-848-1789, asteber@JFNew.com  "  The above text is quoted from a kiosk in the Conservancy.

Variety of techniques: revegetation, riprap, baskets of rock, & metal retaining walls.

Click here for a slide show of erosion control on Pheasant Branch Creek.