New Yahara watershed study to integrate science and community values

February 7, 2011

The Yahara watershed, covering 359 square miles in south central Wisconsin, is perhaps the most studied chain of lakes in the United States.

Scientists, agencies and community partners have worked for decades to understand, protect and improve these local waters while confronting the challenges facing the watershed — ranging from increased stormwater and manure runoff to algal blooms and invasive species. But as we look to the future and build on existing knowledge, an unanswered question remains: How will human actions interact with other drivers to affect the condition of the watershed come midcentury?

"We know a lot about how the Yahara lakes came to be the way they are, but we know little about where they are headed in the future," says Stephen Carpenter, the project co-investigator, director of the UW-Madison Center for Limnology and a professor of zoology and environmental studies. "The future of the lakes depends on human choices."

Five UW-Madison professors — four of them affiliated with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies — will examine this relationship as part of a five-year, nearly $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The interdisciplinary team will study the complex links between the water system and factors such as human activities, land use, climate change, development and ecosystems, and look to better understand and predict the effects of policy decisions and other human activities.

The grant is part of a new NSF Water Sustainability and Climate program that is exploring ways to maintain a sufficient supply and quality of freshwater in the face of changing climate and growing demand, while balancing often-competing needs such as development, agriculture, human use and conservation.

Urban and rural challenges

The Yahara River watershed — linking lakes Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa — is home to about a quarter million people. The Madison area and its lakes will be the chief focus of study.

"There's not a better example of the issues regarding urbanization," says agronomy and environmental studies assistant professor Chris Kucharik, who spearheads the new project. "Madison is a moderate-sized city that's growing quickly. There is increasing water use due to the growing population, we're experiencing climate change, which is likely to increase extreme weather events, and it's an agricultural watershed."

"When you start putting together all of these different drivers, what might that mean to the future of the watershed in terms of quality of life, sustainability of the environment, the lakes and our groundwater supplies?" he asks. Local residents have probably already noticed events such as flooding, runoff into the lakes, unusually high or low lake levels, and algae blooms, Kucharik says, and it's important to understand how future changes may impact the system.

The complexity of the issues — which touch on everything from energy production and food prices to city planning and recreation — requires much more than a "just the facts" type of scientific approach.

"We don't want to spend five years collecting data in the field and running models across the watershed to find out that it wasn't the right information," Kucharik says. Instead the scientists are pursuing an integrated approach that combines scientific modeling, field data collection, stakeholder input, public engagement, outreach and education to take a broad view of the many factors at play.

Community engagement

The scientists' goal is not to decide what the future should look like, says co-principal investigator Adena Rissman, an assistant professor of forest and wildlife ecology and environmental studies. Rather, she says, it is to synthesize the best available information to help policymakers and others understand how to work toward a target outcome.

"Whenever you're talking about a public policy question or a political process, it's really the community values that should drive that process and the role of science in that process," says Rissman. They are also partnering with Edgewood College, Wisconsin Public Television and the Lakeshore Nature Preserve to reach students and the public. The planned projects include a new informational "water walk" along the Lake Mendota shore, a series of television programs, and hands-on research opportunities for undergraduates interested in sustainability.

The project is already bringing together a broad base of researchers who span many campus boundaries and whose expertise runs the gamut from the natural and social sciences to engineering. Of the five co-investigators, Kucharik and Rissman are part of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the Nelson Institute; Carpenter and Monica Turner, professor of zoology, hail from the College of Letters & Science; and Steven Loheide is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and environmental studies.

"This is a new way of doing things, and UW is really well positioned because of the expertise we have on campus. There are no barriers between colleges," Kucharik says. "We hope to develop the tools needed to manage water resources in the built and natural environments in a way that balances social, economic and environmental considerations and enables future generations to do the same."

Ultimately, he hopes, their findings will be applicable to other urban water systems such as the western Milwaukee-eastern Waukesha County corridor, which is studded with lakes and is undergoing rapid development. But for now, the focus is on the Yahara watershed.

"As a scientist, I want to help solve the problems here. That's why we want to do this," says Kucharik.