Policy maps may help efforts to clean up the Yahara lakes

February 25, 2015

On a patch of land upstream of Lake Mendota, where Dorn Creek meanders through farmland, local, state and federal policies are working in tandem to reduce soil and nutrient runoff into the Yahara lakes. In fact, public efforts to clean up the lakes reside in often-overlapping patches across the Yahara Watershed, a pattern made more visible by new research from the Water Sustainability and Climate (WSC) project at UW-Madison.

Graduate student Chloe Wardropper and principal investigator Adena Rissman have developed a new way of looking at how multiple government efforts work together to improve lake water quality. Using the Yahara Watershed in southern Wisconsin as a case study, they mapped where on the landscape soil erosion and nutrient reduction policies are applied, providing a more holistic view that could enhance decision making.

“Thinking about policies spatially could help to improve the efficiency of efforts and funding to reduce runoff,” says lead author Wardropper, a Ph.D. student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

“We found a disconnect
between where policies
are applied on the
landscape and where
the major sources of
phosphorus pollution
are located.”

In the United States, all levels of government — federal, state, county and municipal — apply erosion and nutrient reduction policies to a landscape in a myriad of shapes and forms, including incentives (e.g. grants to implement reduction measures), regulations (e.g. land use restrictions), land acquisitions (e.g., establishing parks) and direct management practices (e.g., creating stormwater basins).

In the Yahara, a region containing both agricultural and urban land and where most water quality policies target phosphorus runoff, efforts include federal incentives for farmers to implement conservation practices on their land, state laws that limit development around lakes and rivers, Dane County parks and municipal street sweeping, among many others.

Wardropper says this “multilevel” governance system has its benefits, such as adaptability and more resources, but it can be difficult to get a clear picture of where and how progress is being made.

“Everyone is working on the same problem, but efforts may not be targeted at areas of the greatest concern,” she says.

The research team mapped 35 policies to get a bird’s eye view of how they overlap and interact with each other on the Yahara landscape and to see whether they are hitting the phosphorus hotspots, or sources of large amounts of runoff. They found that, combined, the palette of policies is missing some of the most important marks.

“We found a disconnect between where policies are applied on the landscape and where the major sources of phosphorus pollution are located,” says Wardropper.

Continue reading this article on the Water Sustainability and Climate (WSC) blog Yahara In Situ, where it was originally published. WSC is a five-year, place-based research project funded by the National Science Foundation to understand how water and the benefits people derive from nature could change over time.