The Rock River is divided into the Upper Rock and Lower Rock River watersheds. The Lower Rock River basin encompasses the Yahara River and much of the metropolitan Madison area. The Upper Rock River basin includes the Crawfish River subwatershed, with a majority of the area draining to its Maunesha River tributary.

The Lower Rock River basin covers the central portion of Dane County. The Yahara River and its chain of lakes (Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa) are central to Madison's identity. Urban and agricultural runoff water quality issues are prevalent in the basin. The conversion of agricultural lands to urban development shifts stressors on water resources. Increasing developed areas leads to increasing runoff volumes from impervious surfaces. Stormwater regulations are key in managing excess runoff and reducing the risk of flooding downstream. Groundwater contamination and withdrawal within this dense urban area also places pressure on groundwater resources. In the central sewer service area encompassing the chain lakes and metropolitan Madison, the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District manages wastewater. Effluent is pumped into Badfish Creek in the Yahara basin and into Badger Mill Creek in the Sugar River watershed.

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The Rock River is polluted, and the region is implementing a plan for improving the river's water quality. The Rock River Recovery  is the project for the river's total maximum daily load (TMDL) of pollutants, as determined by the US EPA and WDNR. The goal of the TMDL is to restore the designated uses of impaired waters within the Rock River basin.

To see water quality goals and pollutant load allocations within the watershed, visit the Wisconsin DNR Watershed Restoration Viewer. This interactive map shows targets for total phosphorus (TP) and total suspended solids (TSS) within the watershed. It also shows the watershed's impaired waters. Click on an impaired water to see its reason for impairment.

Friends Groups

The Rock River Coalition provides the public with the opportunity to work together to improve environmental, recreational, cultural and economic resources within the Rock River basin. They have a volunteer water quality monitoring program and host a yearly event connecting people from across the watershed.

Waubesa Wetlands

In 2017, the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission, in collaboration with WDNR, convened a Technical Advisory Committee to conduct a comprehensive study of the Waubesa Wetlands on the southern toe of Lake Waubesa. An element of this study was completed by Water Resources Management graduate students from the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. Their project assessed impacts of future land use change in the Waubesa Wetlands watershed and promoted engagement among community members. Learn more here.

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