Kick the salt habit--for the sake of our lakes

by Jim Baumann and David Thompson

Madison’s waterways are clearly impacted by winter salt use. Steadily increasing levels of chlorides from deicers have been found in all of Madison's Lakes, and in our wells.

Odana Pond, at the western end of the Lake Wingra watershed, is listed as an impaired water due to very high chloride levels.  Most of the salt is from highways, streets and parking lots, but home use also contributes.

Vultures feast on carp at Odana Pond-->


Adopt-a-Spot: A system for rain garden maintenance

Maintenance of rain gardens is vital.  If they aren't maintained and attractive, there will become eyesores, discouraging future garden construction.

Some rain gardens will cease to function if they become damaged or clogged with debris.  City-built gardens on Keyes St. usually have clogged inlets.  A large rain garden on the Edgewood College campus has an eroded berm, reducing its capacity by half (right).

Orange Schroeder has a City-built rain garden on the terrace in front of her house.  About two years ago in June, she asked me to help her identify which plants in the garden were weeds.  There were several look-alike species I couldn't identify.  I took samples to a botanist Ph.D., but he couldn't identify them without flowers.  Since we didn't know what species were planted, I was stumped.  To pull or not to pull....

A record of what had been planted, and where, would have helped.  What's needed is a database on all rain gardens in Madison with these basic facts recorded, plus who is responsible for maintenance.

Adopt-a-spot in Lansing, MI

When it comes to rain gardens downtown, the capital of Michigan is far ahead of Madison.  Lansing has 55 large rain gardens not far from the capitol building, plus 170 flower gardens.  The rain gardens are large and well-engineered--with an attractive iron fence.


Lake Wingra--a summary of key concepts

Goals.  The Friends of Lake Wingra (FOLW) and the community have identified four goals for the future:  Clean, clear water; restored springflow; abundant native plants and animals; and promoting stewardship and enjoyment.  All our educational efforts should seek to clarify and expand on these four goals.

Watershed. The health of the lake is dependent on the health of the watershed.  The two biggest threats to the watershed are disruption of the natural cycles of water (lack of infiltration) and nutrients (leaves, fertilizer, erosion).


The Lake Wingra Watershed--A Field Trip

To fit within 2.5 hours, we will focus on...
  • A healthy natural waterway
  • Stormwater channels of various kinds, including one badly deteriorated, and a stormwater basin
  • A sick urban stream
  • Rain gardens
...stopping at five locations shown on the map...

AK = Toki Shool
WP = Westmorland Park (lunch stop)
Samp = water sampling location at Wingra Park
----- = route of water from Odana Pond to Lake Wingra


Lincoln Elementary School is a leader in outdoor education

Recently, the Friends of Lake Wingra met with Clare Seguin, a Lincoln science teacher who is interested in applying for a grant from FOLW.

The grant would cover expenses for installation of a rain garden--mostly for plants purchased wholesale from Agrecol, Inc.  Up to $4,000 in funds are available from FOLW, with an application deadline of Jan. 5, 2015.

Clare said she could incorporate rain garden construction into her classes.  Students would put the plants in the ground.

We discussed how a rain garden with native plants could introduce students to concepts of biodiversity.  Students can use inexpensive cameras to "capture" insects visiting fall flowers in the garden.  Then they can make scrapbooks of insect photos, and look up life-cycle details on the internet.


Plans for harvest of aquatic weeds in Vilas Lagoon

Dane County Parks will be doing their last harvest in the Vilas Lagoon starting the week of Sept. 29, or the following week.  The harvesting will be to vegetation in preparation for the winter recreation season.


Volunteers to Raise Monarch Butterflies for Schools

Volunteers needed!

The monarch's numbers are in steep decline--we can't save them unless children know about their amazing metamorphosis and migrations!

A butterfly ranch in my kitchen ->

So the Friends of Lake Wingra has a program to raise Monarch Butterflies for schools.

We've worked out a method, delivering 13 large caterpillars and chrysalises to Thoreau Elementary School.  With your help, we can supply more classes.

The second grade classes at Thoreau School were very excited.  Rapt with attention, the kids asked many smart questions.  Some of the kids are already experienced raising unusual pets--and a number of them begged me to give them monarch eggs.  One gave me a "thank you" hug when we were done.

Here's what's involved.  You can participate in the whole process, or just one of step.  We can train you.  Contact David Thompson at 233-9589.


Thoreau butterfly garden is attracting lots of pollinators

Today, the butterfly garden at Thoreau School was glorious.  The New England aster was in bloom with deep purple flowers that attracted nine or more species of insects.  The various bees, flies, and butterflies are feeding on nectar--and in the process pollinating the flowers.  A good deal for both.

The Thoreau Butterfly Garden was funded with a grant from The Friends of Lake Wingra.

The garden is a wonderful example of biodiversity.  One seldom sees such variety of colorful insects in one spot. You don't have to be concerned with tedious identification.  It's a pleasure to just observe, note the differences, and see how many different kinds you can find.

Let's take a look at what's there.

This hoverfly is nearly as big as a bumble bee.  You can tell it's a fly because it has only two pairs of wings, and huge eyes.  With black and yellow stripes, it gains protection from predators by looking like a bee.  Tentative identification: Flower Fly


Reconstruction scheduled for Monroe Street

The City has rescheduled reconstruction of Monroe St, to 2015.  Budgetary issues caused the delays.

There have been two sessions in which the public was invited to make suggestions for the project.  During the first, I suggested that the City adopt a design goal of not exporting stormwater to the lake for storms up to a selected intensity (let's say a two-year storm).

Such a goal would be easier to achieve if the City (or FoLLW) also adopted a program to encourage better handling of stormwater on private properties nearby.  For example, if more people disconnected their downspouts from their driveways (and the street), then the Monroe Street project wouldn't need to handle as much stormwater.

During the second pubic meeting about Monroe Street, in which City staff summarized input from the first meeting, there was no mention either of adopting a stormwater export standard, or of a program to encourage better infiltration on private property.

The "Green Street" pilot program dropped

A green street seeks to reduce stormwater runoff and associated pollutants, bring natural elements into streets, and improve access for pedestrians and bicycles.  A new green street program can create a standard for a neighborhood, generating pride.  Since Monroe street is a gateway neighborhood to the City for a large number of commuters and visitors, it sets the tone for all of Madison.


Monarch butterfly lays eggs in new butterfly garden

The new butterfly garden at Thoreau School, funded by Friends of Lake Wingra, is a success!

On August 18, I dropped by the garden and was delighted to see a colorful monarch waltzing around the garden--surprised since I have seen so few this summer.

Overview of the butterfly garden, surrounded by a black silt sock.
Thoreau School is in the rear.


Insects as pets

Not many people keep insects as pets nowadays, although the ancient Chinese kept crickets in little cages, to hear them sing.

Over the years, I've kept about 20 different species as pets, but George the monarch caterpillar was my first insect.

When I was a college student, I had a pet tarantula.  (Spiders are much different from insects.)  While I was driving on a back road at Stanford, I saw him crossing the pavement and took him home to my dorm.

Having no other handy cage, I put him in my empty waste basket.  There he sat for several months.  When I entered the room, he'd feel my vibrations and scuttle around the bottom of the basket.  I imagined it was a dance of joy at my homecoming, like Fido's greeting.   Perhaps not.

I'd toss in a few flies or a big bug every day or so, which he happily ate.  But after several months, he died--probably from starvation or dehydration.  His communication skills were poor, so he couldn't communicate what he needed (as if I was listening).

Pros and cons of insect pets

Caterpillars are very different from kitties and doggies.

  • No neurotic behaviors or misbehavior.  Never chew on your shoes.
  • Don't run off (at least not fast)
  • Food is inexpensive.
  • No need for vaccinations or license.
  • Expands your mind.  Teaches about metamorphosis.
  • Insect metamorphosis puts human puberty in perspective.
  • You get three pets for the price of one.  Caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly.

Monarch caterpillar behavior

Previous posts on my pet monarchs
Raising monarchs from the egg
Monarchs are growing steadily

Most people have heard of the miracle of metamorphosis, when a caterpillar transforms itself into a moth or butterfly.  But not many have watched the day-to-day behavior of a caterpillar.

Perhaps that's because it's about as exciting as watching molasses flow.

But wait!  Caterpillars really do have behavior!  They just have a clock that runs more slowly.  Finding out what they do is a challenge.

Portrait of George,with head to right.


Bacteria--from above the clouds to miles below your feet

In the last 20 years, our knowledge of bacteria has undergone a revolution.  We now know that bacteria can live inside solid rock.  Bacteria live and reproduce high in the clouds--where they help form rain as water condenses upon their bodies.

The first hints came in the 1960s, when scientists in the Antarctic found algae living and growing inside the pores of rocks.  The climate near the south pole was harsh--but the microscopic plants found conditions INSIDE rocks to be warmer and wetter than outside.

Since then, bacteria have been found growing in the pores of solid rock several kilometers below the surface.  How they got there is a mystery.  Perhaps these are the descendants of bacteria present in the sediments from which the rocks formed millions of years ago.

Detoxifying bacteria Shewanella oneidensis (green). Source: EMSL

These buried bacteria are able to grow without sunlight by harvesting the energy found in chemical compounds, such as rust or sulfur.  Some even live off the natural radioactivity in rocks.  They persist like Rip Van Winkle in a state of suspended animation--metabolizing just enough to repair damage to their DNA--individual cells perhaps living for eons.


Monarchs are growing steadily

My two monarch caterpillars are growing steadily.  I check on them many times a day.

First, the question of names.  I quickly rejected lame ideas like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, or Jeckyl and Hyde.  Liz suggested Juan and Juanita, because they could end up wintering in Mexico.  But those names didn't ring my bell.  Since the little guys are monarchs,  I decided on King George (the one we kicked out of North America), and Queen Elizabeth I.

Both have been through their first molt--the shedding of skin--to allow for growth.  I think I can see the ghostly film of their shed skin, but it's too tiny and filmy to be sure.  George is much bigger than Elizabeth--perhaps that's because he hatched a day earlier.


Raising monarch butterflies from the egg

No doubt you've heard about the precipitous decline of monarch butterflies, continent-wide.

When I was helping Wingra School with environmental education sessions, we decided to devote one session to butterflies.  Stephanie Robinson ordered painted lady butterflies from Carolina Biological Supply, demonstrating how to raise them.  On another day, the children planted butterfly weed, while parents purchased butterfly weed we supplied to plant at home.

We feel strongly that saving the Monarchs depends on exposing young children to the life cycle of butterflies.  If kids haven't seen and don't understand this miracle, in the future no one will be motivated to do what's necessary to provide food plants and wintering habitat for the monarch.


Experimental rain garden proposed for Hamilton School

There's growing recognition that the best way to cleaner lakes is to improve the watershed around them--including more infiltration of rainwater, less erosion, and more biodiversity.

The Friends of Lake Wingra undertook a survey of the watershed.   One finding was that swales--shallow grassy depressions used to manage stormwater--were present everywhere and could be modified to improve infiltration.  Every school we surveyed had swales, often in areas that have no other use.

Swale at Midvale School during a severe storm.

At some schools such as Lincoln, Midvale, Hamilton, and Toki, over time the swales have changed* so they no longer perform their function of carrying away stormwater.  The result--large puddles that turn to mud or slick ice, creating a nuisance.

Swales are linear depressions in turf, usually in sunny locations.  With little effort, they can be turned into rain gardens by the creation of shallow dams, then planted with native prairie species.

What's needed is a test of this concept, to see if we can find a method that requires minimal labor and expense.  We hope to demonstrate that benefits will outweigh any increased maintenance or loss of open lawn.


Meeting on proposed new building on Monroe St.

Meeting Monday, May 5th, 6:30pm
Wingra School Library

Updated 5/3/14

Neighbors are invited to attend and participate in a discussion on a proposed development at 3414 Monroe Street by developer, Patrick Corcoran.

This site is at the corner of Monroe and Glenway, across Glenway from Parman's Place.

The proposal involves demolishing the current building and constructing a new mixed-use (commercial/residential) building.

The "Save our Lakes" breakfast

On April 25, the Clean Lakes Alliance held its annual fundraiser breakfast at Monona Terrace.  There were at least 5 speakers, including Mayor Paul Soglin and County Executive Joe Parisi.

Steven Carpenter, from the UW's Laboratory of Limnology, spoke briefly about "the state of our lakes."  Basically, our lakes are holding their own--neither improving nor declining--despite all the efforts at correcting their problems.

The ups and downs we have recently seen in lake clarity are simply due to whether it has been a year with lots of runoff, versus a year of drought.

The decorations were stunning, including hanging mobiles depicting the many species of fish in our lakes, made by school children just for this event. Behind luminous blue curtains, videos of waves and bubbles reproduced an underwater environment (someplace much cleaner than our lakes).  It felt like we were dining like mermaids, beneath the waves.

More photos

A community celebration for building a rain garden

More info


Zombie bill comes back from dead to attack environment

We're hearing rumors that SB 349 – the bill that would take away the power of local communities from making their own decisions about things like frac sand mining and factory farms – is coming up – and soon.