New life for Warner Park’s wetland island

November 28, 2013

By Jim Carrier

Jack Hurst views the environment from the end of a fishing pole. He feels the tug of a biting pike, the nibbling of bluegills — and the numbing quiet of an empty hole.

Jack remembers when fishing was good in Warner Park.

Jack Hurst, right, talks with Wild Warner chair Tim Nelson on the shooting island in Warner Park.

Jack Hurst, right, talks with Wild Warner chair Tim Nelson on the shooting island in Warner Park.

“In the 1950s you used to be able to walk on the fish. There were no houses here, then,” said Hurst a lifelong conservationist and member of Wild Warner.

Once known as Castle Marsh the waters of Warner Park were described in 1953 by the Dane County Conservation League as “the last good spawning ground in Lake Mendota and the only natural rearing pond in the area.” It was a nursery for northern pike, large mouth bass, carp and bullheads. In 1955 the Wisconsin Conservation Department bought 13 acres of the marsh to protect the nursery.

Nearly 1,000 acres of Madison's Northside drains into Lake Mendota through Warner Park, whose wetland acts as a screen and sponge. The result is a polluted and degraded wetland.

Nearly 1,000 acres of Madison’s Northside drains into Lake Mendota through Warner Park, whose wetland acts as a screen and sponge, polluting and degrading the wetland.

But over the years Hurst watched its demise. Suburban development brought storm runoff, salt, leaves and pesticides, while the park was drained and filled for ball fields and parking lots. The waters of Warner Park became the de facto dumping ground for Northside development, draining nearly 1,000 acres (949.5) and acting as a sieve before water flowed into Lake Mendota.

“Madison’s lakes are like a heart, and the marshes like Warner are the heart’s arteries. You destroy the arteries, you destroy the heart,” Jack once told the Parks Commission.

Madison either forgot or ignored the fact that Warner’s 60-acre marsh was an official wetland, protected under the 1972 Clean Water Act. This amnesia was evident when the park was chosen for Rhythm & Booms in 1992. A small “island” created by dredging in the 1970s became the “shooting island,” with fireworks aimed over the wetland. This arrangement protected crowds, dampened fires, and buried chemicals, cardboard, wires and fuse.

In 2005 Rhythm & Booms workers spread dirt to build a fireworks launching pad (Photo by Jack Hurst)

In 2005 Rhythm & Booms workers spread dirt to build a fireworks launching pad (Jack Hurst)

They also brought in tons of dirt to bury the mortars. Afterward, the sand was pushed to the edge and, often, into water. After 20 years the accumulated soil had grown into a sizable hill.

A sizeable hill was created in the middle of the island to launch fireworks (Trish O'Kane)

A sizeable hill was created in the middle of the island to launch fireworks (Trish O’Kane)

Hurst and other members of Wild Warner asked the city to study fireworks pollution. The 2012 study, sponsored by Alder Anita Weier, concluded that the fireworks had a measurable effect on the environment from heavy metals and perchlorate.

Rhythm & Booms fireworks in 2010 launched from the wetland "shooting island" into Warner Park polluted the water and plants with chemicals and debris. (Jim Carrier)

Rhythm & Booms fireworks in 2010 launched from the wetland “shooting island” into Warner Park polluted the water and plants with chemicals and debris. (Jim Carrier)

Wild Warner also petitioned the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Natural Resources to investigate. In the spring of 2013 they took core samples and determined that the city had violated the Clean Water Act by dumping fill in a wetland without a permit. They required the city to remove the soil and return the island to its 1970s level.

The shooting island hill after the 2013 fireworks display. This soil was tested by state and federal regulators and found to be in violation of the Clean Water Act of 1972. (Jim Carrier)

The shooting island hill after the 2013 fireworks display. This soil was tested by state and federal regulators and found to be in violation of the Clean Water Act of 1972. (Jim Carrier)

Nearly 200 truckloads, including sand, topsoil and concrete chunks, were hauled to Cherokee Marsh.

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Crews from the Madison Parks Department worked for two weeks to excavate the hill, and haul it to Cherokee Marsh.

Crews from the Madison Parks Department worked for two weeks to excavate the hill.

The island cleared and scraped to original 1970s level when it was created from lagoon dredging. (Jim Carrier)

The island was cleared and scraped to original 1970s level when it was created from lagoon dredging. (Jim Carrier)

On November 7, Jack Hurst put on boots, dipped his hand into a bucket of native wild flower seeds provided by the Parks Department, and with other Wild Warner volunteers, began scattering them across the island.

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Karen Hickel (top) and Deb Riese scatter wildlife seeds. (Jim Carrier)

Karen Hickel (top) and Deb Riese scatter wildlife seeds.

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Wild Warner seed sowers, from left: Paul Noeldner, Mike Rewey, city conservation resource supervisor Russ Hefty, Tim Nelson, Karen Hickel, Trish O’Kane, Deb Riese and Jack Hurst (Jim Carrier)

In the spring, flowers will rise, birds and turtles will return, and the former “shooting island” will become a wetland sanctuary. Jack Hurst hopes that some day the fish will be back, too.

The flower mix planted on the wetland island, supplied by city parks and conservation officer Russ Hefty

The flower mix planted on the wetland island, supplied by city parks conservation resource officer Russ Hefty

Russ Hefty described the benefit of planting this seed mix in the wetland:

 

As if to support the idea, a bald eagle surveyed the work from the cottonwood trees nearby. We took it as a sign – a return of our nation’s symbol.

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A bald eagle watched Wild Warner volunteers seed the wetland island. (Paul Noeldner)

A bald eagle watched Wild Warner volunteers seed the wetland island. (Paul Noeldner)

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