Protecting Lake Wingra Calls for Collaboration

Four people planting a terrace rain garden at Neighborhood House

Installing a terrace rain garden at Neighborhood House Community Center (Photo: Emma Wenman / Friends of the Arboretum)

As the saying goes, “it takes a village” to be truly ready for the next big rainstorm. At least, that’s how the Arboretum sees it. Most of the Arboretum’s 1,200 acres flow into Lake Wingra. While detention ponds and restored land help to filter and absorb some of the stormwater from surrounding neighborhoods, collective help is needed to ensure healthy waterways and, ultimately, a healthy Lake Wingra.

To reduce the harmful effects of urban stormwater and improve watershed health, the Arboretum has embarked on the WATER Project, a partner collaboration to create a model for community engagement on stormwater issues and demonstrate how neighborhood-focused efforts and actions can make a difference. The two-year WATER Project is supported by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

As part of the grant, the Arboretum has given subgrants to local partners who will pursue neighborhood projects that reduce stormwater impact and promote stormwater stewardship action. These partners include: 1000 Friends of Wisconsin (project at Leopold Elementary School), Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association, Friends of Lake Wingra, Friends of the Arboretum, and West High School’s In Pursuit of Sunshine student club.

Funding recipients can use their award for one or more stormwater activities. Possible activities include model green infrastructure projects, neighborhood education and outreach, support for property owners’ stormwater projects, or other activities that address the recipient’s stormwater mitigation priorities. Examples of projects include installation of terrace rain gardens or porous pavers, “how-to” workshops, neighborhood project tours, creation of educational media, or guest speaker presentations.

Participants at the EmpowerU stormwater training
Participants put their skills into practice at the EmpowerU Stormwater training (Photo: Katy Thostenson)

A key project goal is to provide a model of engagement and action for neighboring communities in the greater Yahara watershed. Representatives from the partner groups attended the EmpowerU Stormwater Training, a tested training model that has been successful for other environmental issues, such as invasive species. Participants connected with others who are doing stormwater outreach in the Lake Wingra watershed and learned about additional resources and strategies to help them engage friends, neighbors, and fellow community members in stormwater action. They received outreach toolkits to help them engage and empower friends and neighbors to reduce stormwater impacts in their watershed. We are already seeing the benefits of their hard work and collaboration around the watershed! Here is an update on partner projects.

Newly installed rain garden just before planting
Newly installed rain garden just before planting (Photo: Friends of Lake Wingra)

This summer, Friends of Lake Wingra (FoLW) hosted a rain barrel workshop for residents in the Westmorland neighborhood to learn about the benefits of rain barrels and how to install and use them to harvest rainwater from their roof downspouts. FoLW also started a program for neighborhood residents to get reimbursed for materials to install new rain gardens and rain barrels on their properties. This work builds on the City of Madison’s Westmorland Green Infrastructure Study Area project.

Rain garden site at Wingra School
Rain garden site at Wingra School, August 2021 (Photo: Steve Glass)

The Dudgeon Monroe Neighborhood Association (DMNA) broke ground on a new 800-square-foot rain garden installation at the Wingra School and community park, in a partnership with City of Madison Engineering, the Friends of Lake Wingra, the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative, and the Wingra School. A rain garden contractor is removing asphalt at Dudgeon Park/Wingra School and filling the area with engineered rain garden soil to prepare the site for planting. The goal of this project is to address stormwater erosion and flooding issues at the park.

In Pursuit of Sunshine, a student group at West High School, has planted one rain garden at Heifetz Park in the Burr Oaks Neighborhood, and recently picked up plants from Two Ferns Native Nursery for the four additional rain gardens. They are excited to start planting in the neighborhood at the end of August. The student group has also been filming their process and will provide educational videos in early fall to accompany rain garden planting kits for neighborhood homeowners and businesses. Follow the group on Instagram @in_pursuit_of_sunshine.

At Leopold Elementary School, playground flooding prevents students from safely enjoying their schoolyard. 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and the Leopold School Green Schoolyard Committee are working with a local contractor on a stormwater construction project to alleviate the flooding. An infiltration trench with clear stone will be installed before the start of the 2021–22 school year to help soak up stormwater flowing over the school’s grounds.

Friends of the Arboretum (FOA) is installing rain gardens around the watershed, including one at Neighborhood House Community Center. They have already installed two rain gardens. One will hold water from a one-eighth-acre lawn and 1,000-square-foot roof in an area that currently experiences gullying from water erosion. The other will hold water from 1,400 square feet of impervious sidewalk and roof. Siting, preparation, and planting are team efforts.

While better water quality and reducing the impact of stormwater are important goals for many neighborhoods, the WATER Project information and actions can also help individuals deal with home health and safety issues like basement backups and flooding on private property and roads. Read more about the WATER Project, outreach toolkit, partners, and other resources at Get Involved » Community Projects » WATER Project.

Additional stormwater education events will take place in the watershed throughout the two-year grant period hosted by project partners. If you are interested in learning more, contact Gail Epping Overholt at

—Gail Epping Overholt, Arboretum education coordinator, and Katy Thostenson, WATER Project outreach specialist