Waterbody and Watershed Plans and Projects


Dane County Land and Water Resources Management Plan

Dane County's Land and Water Resources Management Plan addresses soil and water quality concerns using local, state and federal programs. It is a 10-year (from 2008 through 2018) action and implementation plan that emphasizes cooperation with conservation partners in Dane County.

The full plan is available on the Dane County Land Conservation Division website.

For additional information, please contact Dane County Conservationist Amy Callis at: (608) 224-3740 or callis.amy@countyofdane.com.

The Yahara Watershed covers 359 square miles, more than a quarter of Dane County. It includes the Yahara River lakes - Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa. These lakes are important in providing scenic beauty and swimming, boating and fishing opportunities to area residents and visitors. As a result, the lakes are highly valued physical resources and an integral part of the quality of life the Dane County residents enjoy. The lakes were formed about 10,000 years ago when the last glacier deposited a thick layer of glacial till (unsorted sediment) over the landscape and dammed up the large pre-glacial Yahara River Valley.

Local water quality is a direct reflection of land use. As the 20th century progressed, water quality in this area declined in direct proportion to the population growth. Sewage from growing villages and cities, along with manure and fertilizers running off from farms, added bacteria and more nutrients. As the urban and suburban areas grew, so did the area covered by streets, parking lots, roofs and sidewalks. This has increased the amount of runoff, which erodes waterways, increases flooding frequency and intensity, and carries contaminants directly into the lakes.

Much of the watershed is now farmed; however, the watershed also contains most of the urban land of the Madison metropolitan area. In addition, the Yahara Watershed includes some of the largest wetlands that are left in Dane County. The lakes’ watershed includes all or parts of five cities, seven villages and sixteen towns, and is home to about 350,000 people.

Recent years have brought progress as well as challenges. Municipal sewerage is treated and the effluent diverted away from the lakes. Wetlands are better protected; however, population is increasing rapidly, generating much new construction while farms support ever-greater numbers of livestock. Recognizing these trends, county and state officials have been partnering with other local units of government, farmers, developers, and citizens to reduce non-point or runoff pollution.

Find out more about the geology and history of the Yahara Watershed on the Yahara Portal.


Yahara Capital Lakes Environmental Assessment and Needs (CLEAN)

In 2008, concern about the quality of lakes and waters in Madison and Dane County catalyzed a new wave of responsive action. A partnership called Yahara CLEAN (Capital Lakes Environmental Assessment and Needs) was forged between the City of Madison, Dane County, and the State Departments of Natural Resources (DNR) and Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). This effort was bolstered by funding from the agency partners to engage the community and establish clear and achievable goals and an implementation plan for cleaning the lakes, and a grant from the Madison Community Foundation to partner in developing a community vision to guide long-term strategies. The result of this combined effort was broad collaboration and involvement from scientific and technical experts, agency staff, and many local lake organizations, farmers, business leaders, policymakers and concerned individuals.

Yahara CLEAN partners assessed and modeled major sources of sediments, nutrients, and beach bacteria, and proposed solutions to remediate those sources. They engaged hundreds of area residents and experts to create a vision for the lakes and to provide input on the improvement actions being contemplated. They assessed causes of bacterial outbreaks at beaches. They engaged lake scientists at the DNR and the University of Wisconsin Center for Limnology to assess lake response to phosphorus reduction actions in the watershed. They established clear and achievable goals and an implementation plan for achieving a 50% reduction in phosphorus runoff.  The Yahara Lakes Legacy Partnership, including significant contributions from Clean Wisconsin and Gathering Waters Conservancy, supported the Yahara CLEAN partners as they developed their plan of action.

In September 2010, the Yahara CLEAN partners released their report, A CLEAN Future for the Yahara Lakes: Solutions for Tomorrow, Starting Today (PDF). The report identified 70 actions to help clean up the lakes. The actions include recommendations for reducing sediment and nutrient input into the lakes from rural areas and farmlands and urban areas, and for improving beach water quality through stormwater management and waterfowl control measures.

Read more about Yahara CLEAN on the Yahara Portal.

Clean Lakes Alliance subsequently focused on the phosphorus reduction part of Yahara CLEAN, and with support from many agencies and community groups, developed a Strategic Action Plan that details 14 specific actions and phosphorus reduction targets for each of the Yahara lakes. This plan is available on the Clean Lakes Alliance website.


Yahara Watershed Improvement Network (WINs)

Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, in collaboration with over 30 partners, is pioneering a new approach to reduce phosphorus runoff called Watershed Adaptive Management. Excessive levels of phosphorus can harm rivers, streams and lakes. In watershed adaptive management, partners work together to implement cost effective practices that reduce phosphorus from all sources. This collaborative effort is called Yahara WINs and is focused in the Yahara River watershed. Find out more about the Yahara WINs project on Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District's webpage.

Yahara WINs provides cost-share funds to support conservation practices and systems that reduce both nutrient and sediment transport to nearby streams. Find out more about the Yahara WINs Adaptive Management Cost-Share Program (PDF).


Yahara Lakes Advisory Groups (YLAG 1 and 2)

Two Yahara Lakes Advisory Groups have been convened since 2001 to examine the operation, physical constraints, and changing hydrology of the Yahara chain of lakes and make water level recommendations that balance public and private interests.  The Yahara Lakes Advisory Group (1) Final Report (PDF) and appendices (PDF) were completed in 2002.  Dane County Department of Land and Water Resources and Wisconsin DNR staff met periodically to update a status report on YLAG recommendations, most recently in July 2008 (PDF). The YLAG2 group completed its recommendations (PDF) in 2012.


Yahara River Estuary

Sediment and Carp Dynamics in Lake Mendota’s Yahara River Estuary

The Yahara River–Cherokee Marsh system is an important, though rarely studied, freshwater estuary to Lake Mendota near Madison. The system is highly degraded due to shoreline erosion and a large population of invasive carp. A 2013 report summarized the results of a study on sediment and carp dynamics in the estuary and suggested next steps to help restore the system.

The study looked at the amount of sediment (sediment load) and found that the amount of sediment entering (deposition) and exiting (erosion) the system is highly variable due to variable water flow conditions, high wind events that push water upstream, and wave and water current effects. These three factors cause highly dynamic flow velocities, erosive conditions, and prevent deposited sediment from being permanently retained in the system. Instead, the sediment continues to move downstream which poses water quality problems for downstream Lake Mendota.

Another major factor is that the estuary contains a high carp population.   Carp are notorious for rooting in the sediments and their feeding behavior stirs up sediments. This results in poor water clarity that restricts the growth of aquatic plants that provide important fish habitat, slows water down as it moves through the system, and prevents sediment  from moving downstream.

In September 2010, WDNR biologists captured 20 large carp from the three basins of the Yahara estuary,  implanted radio transmitters, tracked their movement for two years, and determined that the carp congregate in the deeper hole of Cherokee Lake during the winter months. Since 2013, over 240,000 pounds of carp have been commercially fished from Cherokee Lake. Aquatic plant beds in the Lake are becoming more prevalent with clearer water.

The Dane County Land & Water Resources Department also evaluated the potential of Floating Bog Interceptors (FBIs) for sediment retention and as fish habitat in 2016. FBIs are wooden structures designed to weaken erosive wave and ice action, expand emergent marsh vegetation and improve water quality by increasing sedimentation and accretion behind the structures and providing ecosystem services. While the FBIs are working to retain sediment, the results of the FBI fish habitat evaluation did not demonstrate a significant increase in fish numbers and species richness compared with the control shoreline.  The structures likely provide some habitat but this is likely minor compared with the floating leaf and submersed aquatic plant communities that now are expanding in the lake. 

Read relevant reports here:



  • Changes and Choices in the Yahara - a mini-documentary series showcases the major lessons learned by the UW-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate project after more than five years of research in the Yahara Watershed. Available on the Water Sustainability and Climate website.
  • Yahara 2070 discussion guides - tools designed to help groups imagine possible futures and then develop their own vision of a desirable future to work toward. Available on the Water Sustainability and Climate website.

Focus of Planning and Actions to Improve Water Quality

Door Creek is a tributary to the Yahara River entering at Lake Kegonsa. Door Creek and its tributaries drain almost 30 square miles of rolling, primarily cash grain, agricultural land in the drumlin-marsh area of eastern Dane County. Much of Door Creek has been straightened and ditched to facilitate agricultural drainage. The Door Creek watershed drains portions of six towns, two villages and a small segment of the city of Madison. Half of the watershed falls within the Town of Cottage Grove. The watershed includes 2,700 acres of wetland and 2,000 acres of residential land.

The Dane County Land and Water Resources Department, with funding support from the Sand County Foundation, has prepared a Door Creek Watershed Management Action Plan. This plan addresses all “nine key elements” that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests are necessary for successful plan implementation to meet the Department's long-term goals of meeting state water quality standards for phosphorus, removing Door Creek from the state impaired waters list, and maintaining the creek’s natural aquatic communities.

Department staff selected the Door Creek watershed for focus as a part of our larger scale work the Yahara Watershed, because it contributes the second-highest phosphorus loading from agricultural land in the Yahara watershed. The plan calls for working with agricultural landowners over the next ten years to install management practices (e.g. nutrient management planning, crop rotations, cover crops) and structural practices (e.g. grassed waterways, terraces, manure storage, barnyard runoff controls). In more urban areas, developers and municipalities are required to implement practices to prevent and reduce soil erosion during land disturbing activities and minimize the long-term negative impacts of stormwater runoff. Working together, our goal is to reduce annual phosphorus runoff by about 38% from agricultural lands and urban sources.

More information about Door Creek and the watershed is available in this handout.


Some ways that area residents can get involved to help improve the health of Door Creek:

Send a message to lakes@countyofdane.com and let us know you would like to receive occasional updates about what’s happening in the watershed, and ask your specific questions about volunteering, touring, and meeting others who care about Door Creek.

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Rice Lake is a shallow seepage lake that lies within the Southeast Wisconsin Glacial Plains landscape. The lake is about 154.5 acres with a maximum depth of eight feet. The Rice Lake watershed (located in the Lower Rock River Basin) drains 1,854 acres of predominantly agricultural land.

Results from a 2011 study show that the lake is highly eutrophic with poor water quality,  water clarity, and suffers from blue-green algae blooms. The fishery consists primarily of panfish with limited bass and northern pike.  No species of special concern were noted.  Limited shoreline development indicates adequate habitat with some areas having excellent areas of woody debris. Woody debris along the shoreline provides great cover for young fish and habitat for basking turtles and other wildlife.   A list of management objectives is available in the full report.

Stewart Lake is a seven acre impoundment located at the headwaters of Moen Creek within the northern limits of the Village of Mt. Horeb.  The dam, now owned by Dane County, was originally built in 1912.  In 1918 the Civilian Conservation Corps and World War I veterans rebuilt the dam after it washed out.  In 1935, Dane County purchased the surrounding land and the impoundment became the centerpiece for the first Dane County Park (Stewart Lake County Park).  The lake’s watershed is relatively small at 476 acres and made up primarily of parkland, farmland and woods. 

For decades the lake was a popular destination for swimmers and anglers but these uses declined significantly due to increased sedimentation and excessive aquatic plant and algae growth. 

The 1992-93 lake study concluded that stormwater runoff was a major source of nutrients in the lake. The other major source was from internal phosphorus loading from lake sediments. A lake management plan was created in 1995 to address these issues. A 2006 study revealed that the lake still suffers from excess nutrients but additional sedimentation has slowed, indicating that best management practices installed after 1995 have helped reduce and prevent additional sedimentation in the lake. 

The Dane County Land & Water Resources Department began a rehabilitation project in 2009 that resulted in 20,000 cubic yards of sediment removal.  Fish stocking, dam repairs, construction of a shelter, new playground equipment, fishing pier and swimming beach were completed as part of the overall effort. 


Read relevant reports here: