From the Desk of Extension-Improving Water Quality from Your Yard!

UW Madison Division of Extension Dodge County has launched a new effort to support Dodge County residents especially during these uncertain times. We are calling it “FROM THE DESK OF EXTENSION-(article topic)”.  This will be a weekly article covering topics from our programmatic areas of agriculture, families, youth, and food/nutrition. The articles will address current issues facing residents through the lens of those program areas. Thank you for supporting our mission to bring relevant research based information and education to the residents of Dodge County.

Michelle Probst, Natural Resources Education UW-Madison Division of Extension

The days are getting longer, the snow is melting, and the familiar bugle of the sand hill crane fills the sky. These are sure signs of spring that we all rejoice. With the melt of snow and high amounts of rainfall we receive in the spring months, this time can unfortunately lead to high amounts of runoff entering our streams and lakes. As runoff will go to the nearest body of water in the watershed, runoff has the potential to carry pollutants with it that can degrade water quality. The pollutants most frequently measured in water bodies within the Rock River basin are phosphorus and total suspended solids (TSS). As water moves across the landscape, it will take soil particles with it and results in high total suspended soils giving water bodies a ‘muddy’ appearance. Soil particles can also carry phosphorus and accumulations of phosphorus in water bodies can cause harmful algae blooms. When trying to address water quality issues, it is important to remember that everyone contributes to water quality challenges, and everyone has a role in working together to restore our water resources.

In efforts to prevent runoff, three principles can be applied in any landscape: 1) Minimize hard/impervious surfaces 2) Divert runoff and debris and 3) Promote infiltration. Specifically, for homeowners or those who have control over landscaping management have a lot of opportunities to apply these principles. Interest in gardening and landscaping was very high last year due to the pandemic, and if you found yourself in this new hobby, keep it up and get creative to prevent runoff from your yard!

A rain barrel is used to collect rain water from rooftops and divert water from leaving yards as runoff. Photo credit: Michelle Probst

Minimizing hard/impervious surfaces: When thinking about landscaping your yard, try to think of alternatives to installing impervious surfaces. Impervious surfaces prevents water from being filtered through the soil. Instead, look to options such as permeable pavers, that allow for water to infiltrate more than concrete would.

Divert runoff and debris: One of the easiest ways to prevent runoff pollution is to clean storm drains. Storm drains eventually lead to a body of water and cleaning the drain of debris will prevent it from getting to water bodies. Additionally, a rain barrel is a way to divert water from leaving your yard by collecting rain from your roof. As a bonus, you can utilize the water collected in a rain barrel to water gardens during the hot summer months.

Rain garden just after being installed. It is designed to collect water from the rooftop and other runoff from the yard. Over time, the perennial plants in the rain garden will grow and develop deep rooting structure to promote water infiltration. Photo credit: Michelle Probst

Promote Infiltration: A great way to promote infiltration is to plant native perennials with deep rooting structures. Well-developed rooting structures can help create pores within the soil for water to infiltrate rather than runoff into a water body. Think about an area in your yard that does not get used very much; planting perennials in that area could prevent runoff and require less maintenance than turf. If your yard has the space for it, considering planting a rain garden that is designed to infiltrate runoff water. The WI DNR has an excellent guide to installing a rain garden, go to and search ‘Rain Gardens: A Beautiful Way to Reduce Runoff Pollution’ and it will be the first link you see.

While preventing runoff is very important, preventing pollution sources is just as important, especially with lawn care. If fertilizing your lawn, use a no-phosphorus fertilizer. The label includes three number Nitrogen-Phosphorus- Potassium, make sure the middle number is ‘0’. UW-Madison Division of Extension has excellent resources for lawn care, go to, ‘Lawn & Garden’ and then ‘Lawns & turf.

As the weather warms and you are eager to get in your yard and gardens, think about how some of these concepts can be applied to your yard and home. More resources can be found at the Madison Area Municipal Stormwater Partnerships website, Ripple Effects, Be creative; prevent runoff, and happy spring!





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