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Digging Deeper: The lasting impact of blue-green algae

MADISON (WKOW) — We’ve seen it skim up time and time again. It’s not an understatement when officials say blue-green algae is a growing problem in Madison. Now, there’s a new worry that if it gets worse, it could have a lasting impact on Madison’s economy. 

"It looks like a toothpaste or almost like a slicky scum on the surface," said Adam Sodersten with the Clean Lakes Alliance. 

However, the nasty blooms are made by us. The runoff from storms and the melting snow and ice sends phosphorus into the lakes. When you mix the phosphorus with excessive heat and low winds, the blooms are created. 

But this year, we’ve seen multiple blue-green algae blooms on Lake Mendota and Lake Monona a bit earlier than usual. 

"We’ve see a couple already in late May, early June that you know, is a little earlier than we would normally expect," said Sodersten. 

Sodersten said, chances are, with the wet spring and start to summer that we had in southern Wisconsin, we could be in store for several more blooms. 

"It could get pretty bad," he added. 

The gunky, sudsy-looking bacteria is dangerous to humans and pets. Health officials are urging people take the beach closures seriously and encourage people not to get in the water if blue-green algae is present. 

But it could also have a lasting impact on Madison’s economy. 

"American Family Insurance sets up headquarters here. CUNA Mutual, you have Lands’ End just a little bit down the road, you have a lot of large corporations and businesses that have chosen to make Madison home because of these great lakes," Sodersten added. 

It’s a threatening reality Zach Brandon, president of Madison’s Chamber of Commerce, agrees with. 

"There are plenty of communities in this country that have waterfronts, whether it’s a river or a lake or an ocean," Brandon said. "They’ve had contamination and other quality problems which then turns people off and it actually becomes a detriment to the community." 

For instance, in 2017, there were 103 days where Madison beaches were completely closed, according to the State of the Lakes Annual Report. 68 percent of those were because of blue-green algae. With beaches closed, it’s just one example of less people coming into the city on nice days. 

In 2018, we’ve already seen beach after beach with closure signs. Many of them were swamped with the thick bacteria. 

It’s the type of thing that could make some people question a trip to Madison or it could keep others from wanting to move to the area. 

But Brandon and Sodersten believe we can fix the issue by fixing our own runoff situations. 

"What we must do is remain forever vigilant and not take them for granted and try to fix things before they become a problem. I think we’re very much at a fixable stage," said Brandon. 

It’s a hope for people to start preserving our lakes in order to keep Madison, thriving. 

"We really, truly are joined by the lakes. And if these lakes get sick or continue to have degrading health, it’s going to degrade the health of our community," Sodersten added. 

Hunter Sáenz

Reporter, WKOW

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