Counties, farmers working together to mitigate phosphorus pollution

The Yahara Watershed Improvement Network kept 40,000 pounds of phosphorus out of the environment last year in partnership with county governments and local farmers.

The Yahara Lakes chain includes Madison’s largest lakes, Monona and Mendota, as well as Lakes Wingra, Waubesa and Kegonsa. They’re all found in Dane County, though the Yahara River snakes down into Rock County as well, where more than 26,000 acres of the watershed are located.

Yahara WINS and its partners aim to reduce phosphorus pollution by 96,000 pounds per year in the next 20 years to meet certain environmental goals. Last year’s efforts achieved more than 40 percent of that goal.

Participating groups include Dane County, Rock County, farmers and other community members in the region.

Members of the nonprofit group Yahara Pride Farms held back 18,859 pounds last year, and Dane County reported holding back 18,015 pounds. More modest results came from Rock County — 566 pounds — and Yahara WINS itself, which held back 2,629 pounds.

Martye Griffin is executive committee president for Yahara WINS. He says 2017 was the first full year of pollution reduction efforts from the current partnership, and results “represent a significant reduction in phosphorus from the documented practices.”

But, he says, phosphorus in the watershed can also be affected by precipitation and harsh weather, including both the “timing and intensity” of storms. Because of that factor, he says water sampling reports may not reflect the progress made so far, and may not for several years.

Looking ahead to the 20-year lifespan of the project, Griffin says both new and continuing efforts are “expected to achieve water quality goals.”

“We can estimate that our collaborative approach will save local residents $13.5 million per year while achieving better environmental results than any single entity could accomplish,” Griffin wrote in a recent report from the group. “Reducing phosphorus at the source is far more cost effective than spending on expensive infrastructure and energy to recover phosphorus from our waters.”

Some of the strategies for farmers to reduce phosphorus runoff and pollution include: planting cover crops and other “harvestable buffers” to shore up stream banks; adding manure to the soil with less physical disturbance; leaf waste management; and stormwater management.

Yahara WINS made new partnerships with Rock County, the Town of Burke and the Clean Lakes Alliance last year. With the addition of these partners, 24 governmental bodies are now funding the project, according to a release.

The effort started in 2012 with leadership from the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, and launched full-scale efforts early last year. Yahara WINS also provides grants for urban and rural phosphorus reduction projects.

See the group’s 2017 report:

–By Alex Moe