Dane County and the city of Madison are pooling resources to expand the use of water filtration systems at five public beaches plagued by algae blooms.
City and county leaders announced plans Thursday to construct a $100,000 “clean beach treatment system” next spring at Warner Park beach on Lake Mendota and install similar systems over the next several years at beaches in Tenney, Esther, James Madison and Vilas parks.
County Executive Joe Parisi said everyone should have the opportunity to swim, even if they can’t afford admission to a pool.
“Nothing beats going to the beach for the day,” Parisi said. “It’s also free.”
But widespread blooms of toxic algae, a result of too many nutrients in the water, forced a record number of beach closures in 2018, including a stretch of Lake Mendota between UW-Madison and Middleton.
John Reimer, assistant director of the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department, designed the first such system while working for the city of Madison in 2011.
The system uses an impermeable curtain to cordon off water around a beach. The water is pumped through a sand filter and ultraviolet treatment system on shore to remove harmful algae and bacteria.
Reimer likens it to a swimming pool inside the lake but without chemicals.
Over the past two years, the five beaches slated to get treatment systems were closed one out of every five days on average. Vilas Park beach was out of commission for more than a third of the time this summer.
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Clean beach corridors at Lake Mendota and Goodland county parks drastically cut the number of closures in recent years, according to numbers from the Dane County Health Department. Prior to installation of the systems those beaches were closed about 25 days each year. Goodland was open every day this summer, and Mendota closed just once because of the smell from a nearby bloom that didn’t penetrate the barrier.
Under the mutual agreement, Dane County will pay to install the systems and the city will handle the maintenance, which Reimer said typically costs less than $1,000 a year.
Officials view the measure as a stop-gap while more far-reaching efforts continue to stop the flow of phosphorus and other nutrients into the lakes, largely due to runoff from farm fields and city streets.
Earlier this year, for example, Dane County acquired a 160-acre farm adjacent to the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in order to restore it to prairie, which is expected to keep about 5 million gallons of water from entering Lake Mendota each year.
Other initiatives seek to remove sediment and vegetation from the Yahara River in hopes of moving water more quickly through the chain of lakes fed by the river.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said the treatment systems will keep key city beaches open all summer.
“It allows the public to go swimming … regardless of what is going on in the larger picture,” Rhodes-Conway said. “This is just one example of the good work we can do when we work together.”
The Yahara Lakes: Giants Among Us
The Yahara lakes are the Madison-area's dominant natural feature. They affect our daily lives, yet we may not know them well. This Wisconsin State Journal series examines the history, impact and health of our lakes.
The Yahara lakes are a largely unknown world within our world. Running right through the middle of our lives, they affect us in ways so big and so familiar that that are easy to forget.
Tamara Thomsen is a marine archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, member of the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame and prolific underwat…
The Wisconsin Historical Society's photo collection contains a variety of images.
Wisconsin State Journal photographers capture the stunning beauty of the Yahara River chain.
Images from lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, Kegonsa and Wingra, the jewels in the Yahara River chain of lakes.
Discover underwater oddities such as cars, boats, equipment and other objects beneath the surface of the Yahara lakes.
Lt. Gerald Stull's crash is also remembered.
One route travels above ground, the other below.
You'll find cars, boats, ice shanties and much more at the bottom of the Yahara lakes.
Native peoples and European settlers have been drawn to the lakes.
It only recently was subject to academic study.
Many were destroyed by white settlers.
White settlers found the lakes attractive, just as did earlier inhabitants.
We asked Wisconsin State Journal readers for their stories and photos about the Yahara lakes. We received a tremendous response. It’s clear th…
“If Wisconsin is going to have swimmable, fishable, drinkable water in 30 years, we need better farm policies,” said one researcher. “What we’re doing is not working.”
Madison, Dane County, farmers and others are fighting back against phosphorous and invasive carp. Will their efforts be enough?
Lake levels are rising, and the area may be on the cusp of flooding unlike anything in the last 100 years, according to one expert.