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Cows at University of Wisconsin-River Falls (copy)

Cows at the UW-River Falls farm.

On many lists of the greatest assets of Dane County and Madison itself are our beautiful lakes. But our ability to enjoy the beauty and recreational benefits of our lakes depends on reducing the amount of pollutants that continue to flow into the Yahara Lakes Watershed.

As a Dane County Board supervisor representing downtown Madison and now as chair of the Healthy Farms, Healthy Lakes Task Force, I am committed to seeing that happen.

It’s not a simple task. There are miles and miles of shoreline in Dane County including lakes, streams and small creeks. Adding to the challenge is the roughly 50/50 split between government and private ownership of the shoreland of the five major lakes in Dane County.

Moreover, in 2015 Dane County cows produced over 1.4 billion pounds of milk. That was 55,000 cows producing an average of 26,300 pounds of milk per cow on 260 dairy farms.

While most of us enjoy dairy products, we need to remember that for every pound of milk produced, over two pounds of manure is produced. We need to do better at keeping that manure out of our watershed.

It’s not just a farm issue, either. Urban runoff contributes to the pollutants entering our lakes.

Yet phosphorus from animal waste remains the greatest problem. We continue to be challenged by having more phosphorus being produced in Dane County than can be used here. 

So why have the task force? Because we all want clean water without threatening the livelihood of the many dairy farms operating within the Yahara Lakes Watershed.

The membership of the Healthy Farms, Healthy Lakes Task Force is a mix of farmers, government representatives, and representatives of advocacy groups such as the Clean Lakes Alliance, Yahara Lakes Association and Yahara Pride Farms, as well as UW professors, scientists and researchers.

The task force began meeting in July 2017 and members have been learning about the multitude of factors that have contributed to the high phosphorus levels in our watershed. We’ve also heard about the many actions taken to date to further reduce the amount of phosphorus entering our streams and lakes.

Our goal is to draft a report before the end of the year that may be used as a blueprint for future action to maintain the health of our farms and improve the water quality of our lakes.

The guiding question as we move forward: What recommendations of policies, procedures and practices will help Dane County to effectively remove phosphorus from our waterways to improve water quality while providing healthy and sustainable farming in the Yahara Watershed?

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The tough part of “being in this together” has occasionally surfaced during our meetings. More than once the farmers and farmer advocates in the room have reminded us of the financial impact our ultimate decisions may have. For many, there is already a slim line between being able to continue as an agricultural producer and deciding it’s time to pursue a more stable form of employment.

To be achievable, our recommendations must reflect the economic implications of implementing county policies.

You can visit the Healthy Farms Healthy, Lakes Task Force website, which contains all of the presentations we’ve received to date. I welcome comments from the public as we move forward and will share those that I receive with the Task Force. We are all in this together.

Mary M. Kolar is chair of the Healthy Farms, Healthy Lakes Task Force and supervisor for County Board District 1.

Editor's note: This column has been revised.

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