Vaccinating our city against watershed disease

Vaccination is the most successful and cost-effective method of preventing infectious disease.  But the process was slow to spread after it was successfully tested by Edward Jenner in 1796, because it's a little painful, and the reason why it works isn't obvious to the average citizen. 

Vaccination works by stimulating our natural immune system.   It works with nature, rather than against it.  And vaccination works best when everyone is vaccinated, because then the disease can't find enough unvaccinated people to spread.

A sick watershed

Today, we have a similar situation with our lakes and streams.  In wild landscapes, rainwater sinks into the ground.  Sometimes during large storms, water does run over the surface into nearby streams, but soon the floodwaters are trapped and filtered in wetlands, where they linger on the way to our lakes. So all water flowing into the lakes is filtered by flowing through the ground, or through the wetlands.

By paving the uplands and filling the wetlands to make shopping centers, we changed the natural system--our lakes and streams became "diseased."  The signs of this disease are vanishing wildlife, dry streams, dirty lakes, and floods near University Avenue.

The prescribed cure? 

Vaccinate the landscape by building rain gardens and small artificial wetlands.  This landscape approach has many similarities to vaccination:
  • Nearly every impervious surface--roof or road--needs a rain garden.
  • Nearly every channel for water needs to incorporate a wetland.
  • Nearly everyone has to become part of the solution.
  • Since the underlying science isn't obvious (groundwater is invisible), city officials and informed citizens have to assert strong leadership.
  • It's a little "painful" at first.  But here there's a difference--for rain gardens are truly beautiful. 
This "vaccination" approach is a method that works with the grain of our landscape.  Any other approach, like burying streams, or channelizing floodwaters with riprap so they rush to the lakes, is working against nature.  As such, these old stormwater techniques are doomed to be either expensive, to be ugly, or to fail.

The "leech doctor"

Despite its obvious success, vaccination has always had its detractors.  Old medical traditions died hard.  The same is true today of city infrastructure.   Once, paving the land and channelizing streams seemed like the modern thing to do.  And it did work for a while.  When the patient is young and vigorous, you can apply a leech to suck some blood, without much ill effect.

But today, with our mature city landscape, "vaccinating" with rain gardens and wetlands is the only sensible solution.  They must be part of EVERY new construction, resurfacing, and redevelopment.  They must be part of the greenway plan. 

If you hear of any new city plan that does not incorporate rain gardens and artificial wetlands, then you are listening to...THE LEECH DOCTOR.

Strong leadership needed

In Madison, there's a lack of strong leadership concerning our diseased lakes and streams.  The system is broken.  When each rain garden by itself is bound to have little effect, we need bold and coordinated action. 

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the City's proposal to allow each resident along the greenway to adopt their own landscaping plan. 

What if we allowed each citizen to mix their own smallpox vaccination?  What if we wrote a check to each resident along University Avenue and said, you get your section paved?  Wow!  This is not a serious proposal for a serious problem.

Yes, it won't be easy to fix the watershed upstream, so that flooding in the greenway (and along University Ave.) is less severe.  So, where's the strong leadership to get hard things done?  Why is our alder just being an apologist for outmoded stormwater solutions?  Where's the Mayor?

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