Is Madison Ready for Watershed Parks?

Peter Nause is one of Madison's most creative landscape architects. He's noted for gardens incorporating natural elements, including natural stone. He tells me there's a movement afoot to keep streams uncovered, and to create watershed parks.

Peter has been working to promote "watershed parks in city parks or the kind of neglected city open spaces this current debate is focusing on. There are lots of precedents for the idea of a watershed park. Here's a link to one excellent example--an environmental artist's work." http://lornajordan.com/artist.asp?ArtistID=20609&AKey=2C782FMS

"Her Waterworks Garden received a lot of attention in my profession. Her garden combines aesthetics, open space preservation, environmental preservation, and new stormwater thinking."

In Seattle, they restored a stream with natural curves and vegetation, and used it to treat runoff from a nearby freeway. http://www.svrdesign.com/tcwqc.html

Also in Seattle, they just finished a public "charette," where children had a chance to be urban stream designers. Link for a slide show: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34170419@N07/sets/72157621598393814/show/

On the photo sharing site flickr, there is a group devoted to urban streams: "There are many ways that we have decided to address waterways in the urban fabric throughout the world, from simply burying them in culverts and pipes, to using them as open sewers, to celebrating and revering water as a source of life and beauty. This group is for us to examine the range of treatments, and perhaps inspire us to imagine new possibilities." http://www.flickr.com/groups/urbanstreams/


Turning floods into trickles

Most of the damage to our ravine occurred during floods like this.
Creek in Nakoma after last year's cloudburst
Runoff from roofs, sidewalks, streets, and parking lots is mostly responsible for floods like these. The floods erode a stream's banks, carrying sediment to the lakes. The floodwaters also carry fertilizer, pesticides, pet waste, street oil, and other contaminants to the lakes.

Rain gardens are a simple solution for runoff problems. You've probably heard about rain gardens for your downspout. You simply scoop out a shallow depression and plant flowers that can tolerate flooding or drought.

Now several other neighborhoods have started to provide rain gardens for runoff from the street. These should be a high priority for Sunset Village, where the lack of curbs would make it easy to construct rain gardens.

Large parking lots in our neighborhood, including the churches, should also be equipped with rain gardens.

Rain garden for parking lot at the corner of Struck St. & Watts Rd.

A rain garden in your future?

My neighbor, Bob Kowal, at 537 Gately Terrace, has a legendary garden. One day, as I admired the luxuriant growth on his terrace, I asked him what the secret was. He said: "I removed about a foot of soil, so the rainwater flows from the sidewalk into the garden, instead of the street." It's as simple as that. Of course, he also lets the leaves sit there in the fall.

With this in mind, I began to notice a quiet revolution going on in the Vilas area. Here, there are numerous little rain gardens, often at the corners. On the slopes draining to Lake Wingra, water runs down the sidewalks, to where it's intercepted by one of these little gardens.

Corner rain garden in Vilas area, Grant St.

Near West High School on several streets, the sidewalks, curbs, and paving were redone. Residents got a choice of a traditional grassy terrace, or a rain garden. Small holes and pipes were built into the new curbs to divert street runoff into the rain gardens.

Each spot in a neighborhood is different. Sometimes the rain runs this way, sometimes that way. Each rain garden has to be built to take advantage of the local flow. Only people in the neighborhood know the local flow.

Rain garden on terrace in Vilas Neighborhood

In the case of Sunset Village Creek--the one that flows through the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway--we have a unique opportunity. That's because the creek originates entirely within Sunset Village. It's our creek. It reflects our values and lifestyle. If it's dying or neglected, well, that says something about us....

If we're going to save that creek, three things have to happen. We have to leave it open, we have to return water to the soil, and we have to get involved as a community.
Rain barrels take water from your downspout and store it for watering the garden. They are designed to exclude mosquitoes.http://www.rainfordane.org/ Now imagine, if everyone along the greenway had a rain barrel, and each one was connected to a soaker hose leading into the greenway. Many residents in the neighborhood have ostrich ferns, and would be willing to donate these and other woodland plants for transplant to the ravine. We could have a big planting party! Within a few years, we'd have a luxuriant prehistoric jungle, good habitat for dinosaurs and pterodactyls.

Planting trillium during the second annual Weed Feed

Returning water to the soil means more than rain gardens for your downspout. To return our creek to robust health, rain gardens have to handle runoff from all the sidewalks and streets. But Sunset Village, with few curbs, offers the ideal place to experiment.

Last year, the creek at Westmorland Park was buried. They said it was done to save Lake Wingra. Destroying nature to save nature doesn't make sense. This folly results from not taking a wider viewpoint--one that encompasses the whole watershed.

That's why I'm proposing that any solution to the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway problem should involve a watershed approach. Retention of rainwater in ponds, gardens, and barrels must be part of the plan. Less runoff means less flooding, less erosion, and less damage to any sewage/runoff system.

The little creek in Sunset Village is an opportunity, just like the right-of-way that was turned into the Southwest Bike Trail. Not so many years ago, the right-of-way was an ugly strip of gravel and abandoned track. Few could have imagined how beautiful it would be today, lined as it is with gardens and flowers. Groups of neighbors go out to establish prairie plants or pull invasive weeds. Our creek has the same potential to be a wonderful asset for the neighborhood. But it we bury it, or "gutterize" it, that opportunity will be lost.

Pulling invasive weeds along the SW bikeway

Other communities are beginning to restore neglected streams. http://www.strawberrycreek.org/ In the future, gas is going to be a lot more expensive, so we need to protect the quiet nooks closer to home.

Payoffs to a watershed approach:

  • Quality of life
  • Community spirit
  • Property values
  • Wildlife
  • Education...

Children learn about invasives during a play at the annual Weed Feed


Where does the water go?

Streams are quirky things. They have personalities--no two are alike. Before a doctor can prescribe, she needs to know the patient.

Yesterday, I took a tour of our stream, to see how it was doing. Upstream, by the park, it was burbling along, with quite a bit of water, even though it hasn’t rained for several days. And, the water was crystal clear! It‘s still a living stream.

Then I walked downstream from S. Owen Drive. Still a good flow was coming out of the pipe. But about a third of the way down the ravine, the water disappeared, as it usually does.

So, where does the water go? There are two possibilities:
1) The grade of the stream increases. Possibly the groundwater level here recedes, as the groundwater hurries to get downhill. I’m told that when the sewage lines were laid in the ravine, there was a road. So maybe the groundwater here is running fast through the gravel of the old road.
2) About where the water disappears, the sewage line is running nearby, and probably lower. It’s quite possible that the stream’s water is leaking into the sewage line.

Whatever the cause, the lesson is clear. This stream is fragile. Putting heavy equipment in there, and dumping a lot of gravel for a road, is going to completely destroy the stream. There won’t be any surface flow. Whatever is done, a waterproof liner may be necessary, to keep the water from sinking in.

I also looked for bedrock. If there were solid bedrock, then it wouldn’t be as necessary to protect the stream banks. You could just remove the rubble, and the stream could flow over the rock. I did find bedrock in three places, but it was highly fractured--probably it wouldn’t provide a stable bank, or prevent the water from going underground.

Two places in the ravine where you can see fractured bedrock

The squarish blocks of limestone you find in the ravine could be saved and used as a raw material for terraces or reinforcing the bank.


An open stream?

There have been some thoughtful discussions between Kathleen McElroy and Chris Schmidt, our Alder. In the discussions, the question of leaving an "open stream" is mentioned.

"Gutterized" open stream just west of the Westside Post Office

But, "there's many a slip twixt the fork and the lip." Just leaving the stream "open" isn't a victory for people who hope for natural streams.

Our open stream will need some natural curves, variations, and a way for vegtation to grow over it. Let's be creative! There's bedrock there--can that be part of the stream's bottom in places?

To see the letters by Kathleen and Chris: http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?topic=8629&post=30991&uid=104680177419#post30991


Make your voice heard !

Vote for which solution you favor to the problems of the greenway. The poll is in the right sidebar, down a bit.

This solution--bury stream in pipes?

Or this solution--an open stream with curves, reinforced?

Or something inbetween? It's up to you!

Please help by sending this newsletter link to your neighbors: http://www.saveourstream.blogspot.com/

Don't rush the greenway project

Stormwater plans usually involve compromise. This is nowhere better illustrated than at the West Towne mall. When the area was developed in the 1960s, engineers needed to plan for the large amount of runoff that would come from huge parking lots and expansive roofs. At that location, the runoff would have flooded into a low area just south of Memorial High School. From there, it would have to reach Lake Mendota through pipes under residential areas.

Through good planning, the engineering department was able to moderate the flooding and reduce the cost of the project. They came up with a plan to create three ponds that would store the floodwaters; the ponds were bordered by soccer fields.

After a heavy storm, the ponds rise to flood the playing fields, giving the ponds a huge capacity. Sometimes soccer suffers, but not very often. The result is a good compromise between engineering, recreation, and wildlife.

Is there a possibility for one or more small ponds upstream from the ravine, to moderate floodwaters? Possibly not, but it should be considered. Or, chanelling street runoff into numerous rain gardens could serve the same purpose.

This project shows that Engineering isn’t the villain. They are just doing what we want--to make sewage and storm water vanish, at the lowest cost. Rather than waiting for some neighborhood to flood, then rescue it--instead, they make sure flooding doesn’t happen, or that it’s controlled.

In the case of the Upland-Hillcrest Greenway, we need to make sure there’s enough time to find a good plan. All sides have to be heard, to reach a compromise. Residents will have to step forward to take some responsibility for their neglected ravine. Additional funding may have to be sought from grants or the private sector. In the process, we shouldn’t lose sight of the larger picture--the chance to build a healthy watershed in Sunset Village, and the chance to make it a greener and more pleasant place to live. Streams are unique and precious resources that humanize our surroundings.

To take a “virtual tour” of the West Towne runoff ponds: http://www.flickr.com/photos/35544042@N06/sets/72157621828454641/show/



It’s hard to oppose something when you don’t have alternatives. So, what other choices do we have to burying Sunset Village Creek—to destroying it? Let’s take a look at the way other small streams have been handled in Madison. Options are listed in approximate order of expense, with lowest first.

Open concrete gutter (or flume). Now you can at least see the water. But the stretch of concrete is an eyesore. Repairs are easy.

Bury it in a big pipe, as first proposed for our Sunset Village Creek. This gives you a grassy space above, and the creek will never “bother” anyone again. Relatively inexpensive. The disadvantages: water in the pipe cannot recharge the groundwater, trees are cut, and the result is straight and unappealing.

Open gutter with riprap. This term means lined with rocks to prevent erosion. Can be built in any size. This oversized GodzillaGulch is just below Glenway Golf Course.

Open gutter with masonry sides and concrete bottom. This example is from Chippewa Creek in Nakoma. It’s pleasant to hear the water rushing.

Open gutter with lining of natural stones. This example from Cherokee Creek in Nakoma looks even more natural, but it’s straight, between the two lanes of the street. This is a good-looking option for streams that are often dry, revealing the bottom.

Natural stream, reinforced with masonry, following the curves of the stream. This is Sunset Village Creek, where it flows naturally over private land between N. Sunset and South Owen drives. The resident on the east side (seen here) reinforced his part of the stream bed with concrete; the resident on the west side just left natural stones. A little maintenance of the concrete is needed each year where cracks develop from root action. No erosion is occurring here.

Natural stream, banks reinforced with boulders. This is the stream just below Thoreau School in Nakoma, after a heavy rain. For larger streams, boulders along the banks are only a temporary fix.

Settling basins. You don’t have to stop all erosion, if there’s a pond downstream to catch the sediment. Likewise, if there’s a basin upstream, there will usually be less destructive flooding downstream. It’s wise to incorporate basins into any storm water or creek restoration project.

Looking for "A Better Way"

I often take a walk for exercise around Sunset Village with my friend Liz McBride. We would go down South Owen Drive, past the pipe where it emerged from under the street to flow west. There we’d pause for a few moments, looking at the wildflowers in a bit of natural woodland next to the stream. The stream itself often had a trickle, burbling around some large boulders in its path. Listening to that sound was like taking the pulse of the neighborhood—the natural pulse—and I was amazed that it was still beating so strongly.

But then, about two years ago, heavy equipment showed up. Within a few weeks, the stream was gone—and in its place, an ugly scar of dirt humped over a big pipe. Exploring, we found the pipe ended in metal bars, designed to keep children out of the stream. Where once neighborhood kids like Kevin Grogg had explored and played, now we found just this ugly grid. When Liz spoke with someone at City Engineering, he talked as if this were the greatest thing since sliced bread. If he had his way, he implied, all Madison’s streams would be buried.

Now the scar has healed and, with grass growing where the stream once flowed, it looks pretty good. But the good looks are really thanks to the large trees that were spared—the stream and woodland flowers are gone.

Next, there was talk of burying a creek where it runs through woods in Westmorland Park. People said it was “to control erosion and prevent sediment from reaching Lake Wingra.” This sounded like a good reason, so I sat back and let others deal with it.

But then heavy equipment showed up last year, and they cut the heart from the woods, stacking up the logs. Tons of gravel were dumped to create a road for the equipment. It didn’t seem to make sense—destroying nature to save nature.

Now wildflowers have been planted over the pipe, but they’re kind of weedy-looking because they’re growing over the gravel road. There’s this unnatural slice through the woods. Another stream gone.

Early this spring, the equipment showed up between the Glenway Golf Course and the SW bike trail. Again, to control erosion into Lake Wingra. And when they were gone, we had—GodzillaGulch. And, the road to the Gulch. The argument—silt is building up here, and we have to get trucks in to remove the sediment from time to time. But this “improvement” is beyond ugly. There has to be a better way.

So when signs saying “save the greenway” showed up on Upland Drive near Liz’s house a few weeks ago, I decided to get involved. Engineering wants to bury the last bit of Sunset Village Creek, and upgrade the sewage lines. Before the heavy equipment shows up again, I’m going to help look for that “better way.” This blog is about what I’m finding out.