Once a week during the beach season, Public Health Madison & Dane County tests our beaches for E. coli bacteria, which is an indicator for pathogens that might pose a human health risk.

These tests are important, because they help to close our beaches when it isn’t safe to swim. However, the labor involved with collecting samples and processing them in the lab makes testing expensive. While water conditions may change on a daily or even hourly basis, it usually isn’t feasible to test that frequently.

Could our volunteer monitors help increase frequency of E. coli sampling by testing close to home using inexpensive equipment? In 2018, Clean Lakes Alliance is piloting at-home E. coli testing as part of our water quality monitoring program.

Four of our Lake Forecast volunteer monitors have agreed to help test our sampling protocol this summer. They will provide preliminary data to help develop the project scope and goals. The project is being supported by our new watershed intern this summer, Anna Weinberg (pictured above in white gloves), who has experience sampling E. coli in Ecuador.

Our Goal

Through this pilot, Clean Lakes Alliance is aiming to take the data collected by volunteers over the summer and turn it into information the community can use to make more informed decisions about our beaches. Perhaps we can better predict high-risk beaches, or identify conditions that increase E. coli in the water so that, as a community, we can prevent them.

Understanding E. coli

E. coli, fully known as Escherichia coli, is a coliform bacterium, found naturally occurring in the lower intestines of warm blooded animals, humans included. E. coli generally develops a symbiotic relationship with its host allowing for both to live healthy lives.

E. coli sounds scary when we hear about an outbreak in our food and see the word plastered under beach closure signs. Yet not all E. coli is harmful: the types of E. coli that contaminate food are just a few of 45 naturally occurring strains.

So if E. coli isn’t always harmful, why is it used to close our beaches? E. coli tests are used as indicators of other pathogens that may be present in water, such as typhoid fever, cholera and giardiasis. The more E. coli that is found in the water the more likely a threatening pathogen may be present. Sources of E. coli include wildlife excrement on beaches, leaking sanitary sewer systems, or storm runoff carrying manure or pet waste.

Why do we need at-home testing?

Through this pilot program, Clean Lakes Alliance and our volunteers are trying to close the gap of once-weekly E. coli testing at beaches. This will allow a more comprehensive picture of the state of the water.

Since Clean Lakes Alliance’s citizen monitoring program was founded in 2013, we have worked with community partners to better understand and communicate current water conditions at our public beaches.

For example, in 2014, Clean Lakes Alliance monitored James Madison Park’s E. coli levels daily during the summer, testing 5 days a week for 13 weeks. During this time, a correlation was demonstrated between heavy rainfall and elevated levels of E. coli the following day. By utilizing daily samples, we discovered four additional closure days that normal weekly sampling would have caught. Thanks to a Clean Lakes Alliance monitoring blitz on July 13th, 2015, we also found that nearly 60% of public beaches exceeded E. coli bacteria standards following a quarter-inch rainfall.

If the pilot is successful, Clean Lakes Alliance could train additional volunteers to test the water more consistently than once a week, allowing us to assist Public Health Madison & Dane County in keeping the community informed and gathering valuable data for future use.

What can you do to help?

Become a volunteer! If you’re passionate about the lakes and would like to volunteer for a future monitoring season, please e-mail We are very excited to be launching this project and hope it will help keep summer safe and fun for everyone.

The Yahara watershed cuts through the middle of Dane County and drains an area of nearly 536 square miles, but few realize the northernmost tip of the watershed lies in Columbia County. This small parcel of 28 square miles is now part of the community-wide partnership effort to reduce phosphorus runoff to the lakes. Columbia County has begun a two-year service agreement with Yahara WINS and is taking impressive steps forward in the name of healthy lakes.

Yahara WINS, also known as Yahara Watershed Improvement Network, is an initiative to create cleaner and clearer lakes in the Yahara watershed. They help implement a strategy of phosphorous mitigation called watershed adaptive management, where all sources of phosphorus work together to improve water quality.  This often involves partnering with municipalities, wastewater treatment plants, farmers, non-profits, and other stakeholders to proactively reduce runoff before it reaches waterways.

Columbia County will receive a  $50,000 grant from Yahara WINS to fund improvements in agricultural and urban practices to minimize phosphorous entering our waterways. They join the ranks of two dozen other Yahara WINS partners who are devoted to the same cause. This generosity with time and resources towards phosphorous runoff minimization is whats needed to make a dent in the problem.

By joining, Columbia County is taking charge to control contributions of phosphorous in their area to help our lakes. They are setting a great example that no parcel of land is too big or too small to start making a difference to benefit the community. One pound of phosphorous can produce up to 500 pounds of algae, making each contribution count.

Congratulations to Columbia County and Yahara WINS; we can’t wait to watch this partnership blossom over the next two years and beyond!

Columbia Fast Facts

  • 5% of the Yahara Watershed is in Columbia County
  • Majority of this area is dedicated to agriculture
  • This area is an internally draining watershed (endorheic basin), common for areas formed by glaciers
  • Yahara River does not directly run through Columbia County but groundwater, agricultural ditches and other water sources from this county flow down into the Yahara
  • Columbia County may reduce phosphorus by 280 pounds in order to meet help meet Yahara watershed’s longterm water quality objectives
  • Columbia County and Dane County’s portion of Yahara watershed are also a part of the Lower Rock River watershed

Greater Madison is the lakes. With over 20 beaches and major lake access points (see map below), these gateways to our five lakes connect us to 58 miles of shoreline of which 48% is owned by YOU – the public!

Clean Lakes Alliance is working to elevate the profile of our public lakeshores, from swimming beaches and fishing piers to boat landings and waterfront parks. Healthier lakes and more inviting public lakeshores will encourage outdoor activity and community wellness, attract more visitors and grow our network of lake enthusiasts who will support advocacy for our lakes. It is this philosophy that motivated us to ignite a “back to the beach” movement and continue to build support for improving our beaches.

Please tell us about the beach you visit by taking this short (5 minutes) survey. You may take this survey for as many beaches as you’d like to comment on.

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Can bubble carriers stop carp?

Carp harvesting efforts have been underway for years in the Yahara River watershed, but more could be done to manage the population of invasive fish. In this month’s Clean Lakes Grants spotlight, we’re sharing the efforts of our partners at Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy, who are ready to tackle the challenge.

Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy is a not-for-profit organization devoted to protecting and restoring Pheasant Branch Conservancy on the northwest shore of Lake Mendota. Through a $8,750 grant awarded for 2018, the group will evaluate the feasibility of installing a new carp “bubble barrier” system on Pheasant Branch Creek to ultimately craft a recommendation and action plan for implementation.

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In May, Clean Lakes Alliance renewed a partnership with UW-Madison Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Department to support and sponsor the student capstone course focused on improving our beaches.

In this course, Senior Capstone Design, sponsoring partners who require creative solutions to specific problems team up with senior engineering students. Students create innovative designs to solve real problems by using knowledge and skills from classwork and work experiences, along with the guidance of volunteer professional mentors.

Clean Lakes Alliance is proud to be a sponsoring partner of the student capstone projects. Serving as a “client” to the students provides us a captive audience and valuable resource as we continue our work in inspiring the community to advocate for healthy lakes and beaches. In the meantime, students gain experience in designing solutions to not only environmental challenges but also an actual client’s needs. With 48 percent of the shoreline owned by the public and over 20 beaches in the Greater Madison area, we have numerous project opportunities for the students.

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Erosion mat

Did you know that construction erosion is a serious and ongoing threat to our lakes? Controlling construction erosion is one of 14 recommended actions to reduce algae blooms in the Yahara CLEAN Strategic Action Plan for Phosphorus Reduction. It is also one of eight focus areas in Plan 2020: A Clear Path Forward, Clean Lakes Alliance’s strategic operating plan.

With every failed, missing or improperly installed erosion-control measure, the risk of dirty runoff entering our lakes rises each time it rains. Whether this leads to a muddy street or a dirt-choked storm sewer drain, a mismanaged construction project can spell big trouble for water quality.

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Our office is in full summer swing with our summer internship & volunteers program. We had over 100 people apply for our 15 intern spots. With this summer staff we’re able to accomplish more as a team!

These talented students do everything from monitoring our lakes and uploading data to; to planning and executing our summer events; to assisting with grant writing and researching innovative solutions to support our mission.

Below is a little more about our interns, where they’re from, and what they’re doing in school. We’re happy to be able to offer a number of paid internships within each department as well as for-credit and volunteer opportunities.

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Paddle for a Purpose kicks off at Brittingham Boats on Lake Monona

People looking for an excuse to ditch out of work a little early on a warm Monday afternoon need to look no farther than one of three Madison Boats locations. Starting on Monday, June 4, Madison Boats will kick off its “Paddle for a Purpose” program with Clean Lakes Alliance. The program will dedicate 20% of all paddle sport rentals every Monday this summer from 4-8 p.m. at its Brittingham Boats, Wingra Boats, and Marshall Boats locations to Clean Lakes Alliance.

“Clean and healthy lakes are essential to our business,” said Madison Boats owner Tyler Leeper. “We’ve supported Clean Lakes Alliance since the beginning and we are excited to get more community members behind raising funds for our lakes.”

Kickoff Party

What: Paddle for a Purpose Launch Party
When: Monday June 4th, 4-8 p.m.
Where: Brittingham Boats, 701 W. Brittingham Pl.
Info: Grilled food and live music for paddlers and friends looking to help the lakes
On-Site Contact: Adam Sodersten – Cell 608-658-3648

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Wednesday rain causes visible runoff into Lake Mendota

Recent heavy rain storms flush algae-causing phosphorus through storm sewers into lakes

Heavy rain events over the past two weeks in the Madison area are setting up its lakes for toxic blue-green algae blooms in the coming months. With one pound of phosphorus having the capability to create 500 pounds of algae, the need to slow or divert runoff is imperative.

“The heavy rain storms we’ve had over the past several weeks have made harmful runoff issues visible to the naked eye,” says Clean Lakes Alliance Executive Director James Tye. “From our Foley & Lardner donated offices in Verex Plaza next to James Madison Park, we’ve witnessed huge plumes of sediment wash into the lake multiple times over the past few weeks.

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Partnerships aims to bring Greater Madison community “Back to the Beach”

Madison, Wis. – Clean Lakes Alliance is pleased to announce the top three prize winners of the Reimagining Warner Beach design contest. Made possible with the support of a Madison Community Foundation 75th Anniversary Year of Giving grant, the contest asked amateur and professional designers to come up with plans for Warner Beach that focused on improving water quality, sustainability, community access, and placemaking to promote community health, happiness and wellbeing.

“We’re thrilled to see exciting new visions for Warner Beach—and for all our beaches—come to life as part of Madison Community Foundation’s 75th Anniversary Year of Giving,” said president Bob Sorge. “Our lakes are among Madison’s most unique natural and cultural assets, and the winning designs reflect our community’s passion and determination to ensure these precious resources are healthy and thriving for generations to come.”

“Many of the 26 design entries brought the energy and vision the community needs for ourbeaches to improve,” said Clean Lakes Alliance executive director James Tye. “We’re excited to see how these designs could help influence the City of Madison Parks Division as beaches are renovated in our community.”

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