The Model Lake

One of the world’s most respected ecological thinkers sounds a warning for Lake Mendota

When Lake Mendota turned the color of a bad Gatorade experiment in June, you should have seen it through Steve Carpenter’s eyes.

Carpenter, who is retiring this month after 28 years at the UW Center for Limnology, talks about Lake Mendota with a subtly relaxed sense of time. He’s been studying the Madison lakes since he began his doctorate in 1974. His specialty is environmental change: understanding it, predicting it, manipulating it. And Lake Mendota has been his laboratory, his lens, his living model.

Just like you, he saw that unnerving blue, the dead and dying fish. He knew the smell would probably get worse. No swimming allowed.

But he could also see the lake in 1971, when we finally diverted human sewage from the lakes. He could see it in 1987, when an extra large batch of walleye were released to initiate a grand ecological experiment to clean the lakes. He also sees decades into the future, divergent scenarios ranging from ecological recovery to stinking death spiral.

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Candid Camera

Courtesy Wisconsin DNR


At first there is nothing—windblown leaves maybe, or the quicksilver skitter of a squirrel. I can’t identify the source of the movement, and settle back expectantly because soon, I know, there will be more chances.

Huddled in the twilit hour I am hunting, expecting the common whitetail deer—but hopeful for more elusive game. Where there are deer there could be a wolf, right? A bear? Either would make the wait worthwhile. Or perhaps something I’ve never seen, like the elusive fisher?

Some time passes before I see the princely buck, so hale and burnished brown that my gaze lingers long in pure appreciation. His neck and shoulders are heftier than even the regal eight-point crown suggests. I’ve seen a lot of deer already, but he has presented broadside, at perfect range. My finger hesitates as I savor the action. And finally I decide, yes, this is a keeper.

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Till The Well Runs Dry — Wisconsin’s Groundwater Challenge

The Little Plover River in June, 2014. Remarkably, this idyllic spot is just a few hundred feet from I-39.

The Little Plover River in June, 2014. Remarkably, this idyllic spot is just a few hundred feet from I-39.

A decade ago, the Wisconsin legislature debated and passed — in spectacular bipartisan fashion — a long-needed update to the state’s groundwater law. Both parties acknowledged their work was only half done, but since then partisan rancor has reigned, while the pressure on Wisconsin’s signature natural resource has redoubled. In the latest issue of Milwaukee Magazine I make the case for conservation, science, and public policy to lead us back across the partisan divide.

One of my favorite interviews was with Jon W. Allan, who heads Michigan’s Office of Great Lakes. He was talking about how Michigan had managed to overcome partisan distrust and build a more pro-active groundwater management tool.


The tool is what makes the regulatory process possible, says Allan. The vast majority of users are going to fly through, alleviating the fear of unreasonable bureaucracy. But it’s more than a computer model. Underpinning the tool is the trust that stakeholders built over seven years of intense bipartisan discourse.

Allan led his state’s discussion, co-chairing a commission chosen in equal parts by both houses of the Michigan Legislature and by the governor. The commission’s work required long hours of study, public process and transparency. “You have to build trust on the political side that the science is good. And you have to build trust that the politics will follow,” says Allan.


You can find the full story here.