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10 football fields 25 feet deep will help protect Madison's lakes
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10 football fields 25 feet deep will help protect Madison's lakes

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What if every home in Dane County had a 55-gallon rain barrel to catch water as it rushes off roofs and through downspouts?

All of those rain barrels would collect about 7.5 million gallons of water every time it rained, on average. Empty those barrels three times per month from May to September, and that’s enough water to fill 10 football fields 25 feet deep, according to the Clean Lakes Alliance.

That’s an enormous amount of precipitation that, if captured, could be gradually spread on lawns, gardens and other plants — rather than washing organic material off the land and into Madison’s lakes during storms. All of that organic material contains thousands of pounds of phosphorus that feed stinky weeds, algae and muck that foul summer fun.

Lake water should be blue, not green.

The rain barrel example — which today we challenge every Dane County homeowner to implement — shows how significant the impact of one simple act, repeated across the region, can have in protecting the Yahara chain of lakes — Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, Kegonsa and Wingra.

Those lakes define the Madison area. They support countless businesses, bolster the economy, draw visitors and make living here special.

We need to do more to protect them, and everyone must play a role.

Farmers — especially those north and upstream of Lake Mendota — must redouble their efforts to stop phosphorus-rich manure and soil from washing off barnyards and fields. They must continue to plant cover crops and contour their fields to reduce erosion. Manure digesters help. So does the injection of manure into the soil, rather than spreading it on top.

Dane County and municipal officials must buffer more waterways against downpours and continue to preserve rain-absorbing natural areas. Madison has started mapping its watershed to discover and fix trouble spots where water is rushing too fast into the lakes after storms.

Construction crews in our fast-growing region need to ensure their sites don’t discharge soil when it rains. More businesses are buffering their parking lots with vegetation to slow runoff.

Then there’s the rest of us, who need to install rain barrels. We need to keep our grass clippings and leaves from washing into the street and storm sewers that lead to the lakes. The Clean Lakes Alliance is planning to certify homes as lake-friendly next year. So start to prepare now. If you have free time, you can volunteer to help collect data on lake quality.

Lots of progress is being made, thanks to 19 organizations that the Clean Lakes Alliance has united. The amount of phosphorus per gallon of water leading to Lake Mendota has fallen by about a third over the last two decades, according to Dane County research. But heavier bursts of rain, linked to climate change, have increased runoff and flooding, which has offset some of the region’s hard work.

Clean lakes are a complicated challenge.

What isn’t difficult is adopting a few small practices that just about anyone with a home can achieve. Learn how to make a rain barrel at Plant native vegetation that slows and absorbs water. Compost food scraps to create natural fertilizer that you won’t need to buy from the store. Reduce salt on sidewalks during winter.

The Clean Lakes Alliance offers its Top 10 tips for homeowners at

This holiday weekend marks the unofficial start of summer. If you haven’t already, commit to protecting our waterways — one rain barrel at a time.

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