Weeds and algae in Madison lakes

Weeds and algae, most frequently caused by excess phosphorus in stormwater runoff, are among the problems faced by Madison lakes today.

MICHAEL P. KING/WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL

It’s not that hard to see why the state’s most liberal city went to one of the country’s most conservative Legislatures to overrule the state’s most liberal county.

Power usually trumps ideology, even when the political gulf separating Madison and Dane County from Republicans on the state’s Joint Finance Committee is about as wide as wide can get.

Madison officials wouldn’t say getting control of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District is about power, of course. They’d say it was about democracy.

Given what’s at stake, I doubt democracy was the only — or even the most important — consideration.

The JFC’s decision July 2 to expand the MMSD board and overhaul the way it’s appointed was a mere hiccup against the backdrop of Republican attempts to gut the state’s open records law and rejigger oversight of the state retirement system.

But all were among the anonymously sponsored proposals contained in a last-minute, so-called “999” budget motion passed along party lines with very little scrutiny.

The motion increases the number of commissioners on the MMSD board from five to nine and gives control over five of the appointments to the Madison mayor. Previously, the Dane County board appointed all five members.

If that all sounds like so much inside baseball at an institution whose work — taking care of what we flush down the toilet — we’d rather not think too much about, it’s worth remembering what the district is up to these days.

MMSD is just getting started on what is likely to be a two-decades-long effort to meet federal mandates for reducing the amount of phosphorus that gets into local waterways.

Phosphorus is what makes all those nasty weeds and algae grow in Madison’s lakes, and district director of ecosystem services Dave Taylor said the strategy the district has chosen for reducing it — called “adaptive management” — is likely to cost an estimated $120 million.

It’s understandable that Madison Mayor Paul Soglin has pushed for the new way of appointing MMSD board members. If you were mayor of the city that makes up the bulk of the district, wouldn’t you want some say over who pays how much of that $120 million?

Nevertheless, Soglin and the city’s lobbyist, Nick Zavos, have sought to downplay control over the adaptive management program as reason for controlling the board.

It’s “not about reducing or redistributing costs, nor is it about changing or paying less for adaptive management,” Zavos said, and “the city has been treated completely fair in how much it has contributed” to the adaptive management pilot project, which Taylor said began in 2012 as a precursor to rolling up the full program in 2017.

Zavos also said “the city did not have any concerns about having to pay more than it should” for that full program were the MMSD board to have remained under county control.

But if the city were merely interested in more representative democracy at the MMSD, it had plenty of opportunity to pursue it in the 43 years the MMSD board has been controlled by the county — including stints in the 1970s, 80s and 90s when Soglin was mayor.

Josh Wescott, chief of staff to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, said changing control of the board risks undermining the county’s phosphorus-reduction work with farmers, who are responsible for about 65 percent of the excess phosphorus making it into the watershed.

The Clean Lakes Alliance, an advocacy group for Madison lake health, took no formal position on the change in appointment process, according to deputy director Elizabeth Katt-Reinders. (Full disclosure: Katt-Reinders is a family friend.)

But “we do feel that it’s important to retain the institutional knowledge of the current commissioners in order to see that adaptive management is successful as we transition from the pilot project to a full-scale, watershed-wide project over the next couple of years,” she said.

Wescott said it might be that Soglin, who did not respond to my messages, has problems with adaptive management’s cost to the city, but it’s not “politically popular” to say as much about such a collaborative program.

Collaborative and environmentally progressive, too.

Rather than build a treatment plant to remove phosphorus after it’s been released, adaptive management means working with phosphorus producers to keep excess phosphorus from getting into the watershed in the first place by, say, encouraging farmers to plant cover crops or homeowners to keep their leaves out of the gutter in the fall.

So far, the approach — based on the results of the pilot project — has been “very, very successful,” Taylor said.

It would be comforting to believe Madison’s only goal in taking control of the MMSD board is to continue that success.

Comforting and maybe a bit naïve.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Chris Rickert is the metro columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, where he's got his laser-like perspective trained (mostly) on all things Madison.