BECWA Meeting Focuses on Flooding, Water Mitigation

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By: 
Katherine Perreth
A bridge over Black Earth Creek in Cross Plains was moved several feet during the Flood of 2018.

CROSS PLAINS–On Oct. 22, over 50 people attended the Black Earth Creek Watershed Association (BECWA) fall meeting, held at the Cross Plains Fire Station. It brought interested parties together from government, nonprofits and citizens, to share and discuss findings regarding the August 2018 flood impact upon communities, farming and trout in the watershed.

BECWA President Greg Hyer began, “For over 30 years, BECWA has been a community-based watershed advocate and educator,” working with farmers, landowners, developers and communities to protect watershed wildlife, fish and water. “The past focus has been on the quality of water,” he said, “now it’s quantity.”

August 2018 to Present: Increased Water

The increased volume of water the area has experienced in the past year has significantly impacted many, garnered the attention of most and is leading to communities-wide discussions on how best to proceed in tackling excess precipitation.

Cross Plains Village Administrator Bill Chang joined experts from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Capital Area Regional Planning Commission (CARPC) to explain flood impact and mitigation plans. A farmer slated to present was not able to attend.

Mike Rupiper, the CARPC director of environmental resource planning, covers multiple jurisdictions. He outlined the connectedness between communities scattered along Black Earth Creek (BEC): Town of Middleton, Town of Cross Plains, Cross Plains, Black Earth and Mazomanie.

Maps show that although the highest totals of rainfall, 10 inches on average, occurred near the BEC headwaters just west of Middleton, the community sustaining the most damage from the August 2018 event was Mazomanie, approximately 17 miles downstream. Of the nearly $3 million FEMA dollars awarded throughout the entire watershed, the village of Mazomanie accounted for over $1 million.

During the flood, the U.S. Geological Survey site at Mazomanie recorded the BEC water rushing through at 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs)–the normal rate is 20 cfs, Rupiper said. “What happens upstream significantly impacts those downstream.”

Chang said the FEMA floodplain, redrawn in 2016, proved accurate in 2018, especially in Cross Plains where Brewery Creek joins BEC. But homeowners, including those just outside the floodplain, were not prepared for flooded basements, he said, or rising insurance.

One citizen commented that Mazomanie will be purchasing approximately six homes to demolish and replace with green space, and at least three homes have already been elevated to prevent flooding. The solutions were mandated.

Sustainability, Green Infrastructure: Solutions

Cross Plains is now working on flood mitigation, specifically concerning land use and future developments, Chang said, and has created a Sustainability Committee to explore local solutions.

As for regional solutions, Rupiper outlined a Green Infrastructure plan spurred by the August 2018 flood. It follows a Milwaukee-area model, he said. That region has been aggressively working since 2013 to mitigate flooding, with the goal by 2035 of handling 740 million gallons of water every time it rains, Rupiper explained. Green infrastructure employs multiple methods to remove, or capture, water: infiltration, evaporation and storage, among them.

Green infrastructure can be implemented by individuals, companies or municipalities, in urban or rural settings. It includes relatively low-cost projects such as rain barrels, and planting native species “rain gardens” and storm water trees, as well as larger ticket items such as porous pavements, green roofs and wetlands restoration, Rupiper said.

There are a plethora of strategies to select from in any given land area, Rupiper said, each with its own cost/benefit. Green infrastructure will provide recreational opportunities, air and water quality improvement and increased property values, as well as flood reduction.

“(Green infrastructure) implementation higher up in the watershed benefits more people in the watershed overall,” Rupiper said.

During the lively discussion time, one person wondered if Middleton had allowed the wetland just west of the beltline to remain undeveloped, the flood impact of 2018 would have been minimized for those downstream.

Middleton resident Debra Weitzel, a member of Middleton’s Sustainability Committee, said that at the time, engineers insisted the developed area could handle run-off, but they were preparing for a 100-year flood event, not 1,000-year. She also relayed information from an expert who recently presented to the committee: Water infiltration is not enough, he said, as the ground is currently saturated–evaporation is also key.

An example of green infrastructure allowing for more evaporation would be for homeowners and businesses to plant prairies instead of lawn, Weitzel said, “But I don’t know if people are willing to do that.”

Wetlands Restoration: A Critical Piece of the Puzzle

Wetlands restoration is one important piece to flood mitigation, Rupiper explained. In the BEC watershed, there are nine sites meeting three important criteria: high flood mitigation potential, larger than 20 acres and adjacent to existing wetland. However, returning the landscape to its natural water management capabilities will require collaboration between agencies, municipalities, nonprofits and willing landowners. The latter are critical for wetlands restoration implementation–long-term easements agreements.

Through the end of 2019 CARPC is seeking grant funding for green infrastructure, including wetlands restoration. Awarded grants would allow for planning in 2020 and implementation in 2021, Rupiper said.

Flood Impact Upon Black Earth Creek Trout

Dan Oele, a DNR biologist, monitors fish in BEC and its tributaries. When a catastrophic flood occurs, adult fish tend to disperse, he said. “They hunker down and hide in the flood margins.” The young, however, perish. The worst time for a flood would be early spring, he said, when young are most vulnerable.

While the August 2018 flood impacted the fish population, it was acute, he said. And overall, it led to some good outcomes. “The flood scoured the creek bed, down to gravel beds,” Oele explained, good for fish habitat.

BEC, a Class One trout stream, has been monitored annually for many years at the same locations and time of year, Oele said. The June-August 2019 fish survey of the 27 creek sites revealed some of the most impressive trout live in the Zander Park section of BEC, in Cross Plains. “20-inch trophy fish, right in our back yard,” Oele said.

Retired stream ecologist and BECWA vice president Bobbi Peckarsky commended Cross Plains for attending to the creek as it passes through the village. “The village did a great job restoring the meander,” she said.

The highest trout density was near Salmo Pond, just west of Cross Plains. The headwaters near Middleton, by contrast, contained no trout, due to warm water temperature. There were also fewer fish in sections near Black Earth and Mazomanie, Oele said.

In addition, the tributaries “are not in the best shape,” he said. No baby trout were found in Brewery Creek. Trout require appropriate thermal, then physical, habitat, he said. Cold water is paramount. Streambank protection, planting trees whose roots control erosion, reconfiguring streams and other methods to slow water, aid fish populations, he said.

Farming Community

While fish suffered from the past year’s inundation of water, many farmers have faced extreme hardship. Dave Lucey, BECWA treasurer, recounted dismal news. Of one farmer, Lucey reported, “40-80 acres couldn’t be planted, they’re underwater.” Of another he said, “an organic farmer sustained staggering losses, his production is half of what it was.”

A father and son who farm according to no till, cover crop practices explained the water isn’t flowing as it used to and is at least a foot higher than usual. “And if the water doesn’t drain away, it’s a lost cause,” the son said. “That’s my battle.”

One attender questioned whether green infrastructure will be enough to alleviate water hardships for farmers. Since the process has just begun, said Rupiper, it could take a decade or more to know the answer to that.

Another issue, reconnecting streams to floodplains. One man noted that if your farm is in the floodplain, you should expect it to flood, concluding, “At what point do you say, ‘Get the hell away from the water!?’”

Dane County Land and Water Resources Department watershed manager Kyle Minks explained the recent success of the Yahara River Watershed, working with farmers to prevent flooding and phosphorous runoff.

“It required flexibility and creativity,” Minks said. One program, Harvestable Buffer, encourages farmers to plant forage species between cropland and waterways, a win-win for farmers and the watershed. 

But planting, of course, depends upon buffer zones being above water.

Teamwork Required For Our Future

In addition to BECWA, multiple organizations sponsored the meeting: Southern Wisconsin Trout Unlimited, Gateway to The Driftless and Groundswell Conservancy. Conversation between organization members, farmers, village residents and governmental agencies is a necessary step in addressing future flooding.

Rupiper cited Yahara Wins, “an intergovernmental agreement, with pooled resources from multiple communities, that puts them to use where they collectively think it would do the most good.”

One citizen asked, “If I live in Mazomanie, do I want to spend money in the Town of Middleton? I need to be persuaded it’s going to positively affect me.”

Added to the flood mitigation discussion, Town of Vermont Board member Warren Gaskill said the township has undertaken an initiative to offer homeowners, landowners and businesses practical steps and incentives to address energy efficiency to save money and reduce environmental impact. Climate change meetings held in Cross Plains in 2019 led to the township’s proactive plan to improve and expand renewable energy sources, such as solar panel installation. Workshops will be held in 2020.

“We know what to do,” Gaskill said. “We just have to have more people doing it.”

The overall conclusion of the meeting was that the complex issue of increased water volume poses myriad problems for humans and wildlife, solutions require teamwork from all of us and, often, they won’t be an easy or immediate fix.

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