County Conservation Committee approves formation of watershed advisory committee, delays vote on dam decommissioning 

July 3, 2024

by Julia Buskirk

VIROQUA, Wis.––The Vernon County Conservation and Education Committee (CEC) delayed their vote on a resolution to approve a federal plan to decommission 23 dams in two watersheds during their June 2024 meeting. The resolution was still being reviewed by other counties and legal counsel but will be revisited in their upcoming meeting on July 11. The committee did unanimously approve moving forward with the formation of an advisory committee to discuss what will come after the dam decommissioning process.

Two county board supervisors and committee members, Mary Henry and Nathaniel Slack, will work alongside County Conservationist Ben Wojahn and County Administrative Coordinator Cassandra Hanan and bring back recommendations, including the proposed structure and involved stakeholders. Those recommendations will be brought to the next CEC meeting on July 11. Preliminary discussions proposed two CEC members on the committee, two representatives from the watershed groups and perhaps a couple of “at large” members. 

Jersey Valley Dam before 2018

This decision arose after increased community concern surrounding the proposed decommissioning of the 23 PL566 flood control dams in La Crosse, Monroe and Vernon Counties, 14 dams in the Coon Creek watershed and nine in the West Fork of the Kickapoo. 

The PL566 earthen dams were built by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) during the 1950s-1970s with the intent to control flood events, and in some cases, provide recreational pools such as Jersey Valley. The NRCS has recently completed a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on the safety of these PL566 dams, a report requested by the federal government after the 2018 flooding led to five PL566 dam failures across the Coon Creek and West Fork of the Kickapoo watersheds.

According to the federal study the dams were built in the 1950s-70s to last 50 years, and were not built to withstand the rain events that are now more frequent in the region. That study points out that at the time the dams were built, a 100 year flood event was considered to be 6.5 inches of rain in 24 hours. Recent weather events have produced as much as 12-14 inches of rain in 24 hours. For these reasons, the PEIS report concluded that the dams need to be decommissioned to avoid future failures and to prevent possible loss of life. 

The report also states that the price of replacing them would outweigh the projected cost of protected land and property, giving the recommendation for the county to decommission the dams without plans to rebuild them. A plan for flood resiliency in the area, moving forward, is not part of this report.

Jersey Valley Dam after 2018

Eric Winnegar is a CCCWC board member whose farm is located in the Coon Creek Watershed spoke during the public comment section at the June Conservation and Education Committee meeting.

“These dams are going away,” said Weninger. “There’s no question about that. Now what are we going to do?” 

His question echoed throughout the meeting. Vernon County Administrative Coordinator Cassandra Hanan, who will be helping form the advisory committee, says she’s been getting questions from the community.

“What we’ve been hearing consistently for the last few months with the dam decommissioning is, what happens next?” said Hanan. 

Forming an advisory committee is an attempt at an answer. Supervisor Henry said she envisions this Advisory Committee as a place to have dialogue and coordinate future action. She said she was inspired by attendance at Monroe’s County’s Climate Change Task Force meetings, where a similar committee has been formed to bring together community members and different levels of government to discuss this issue. 

Supervisor Henry said she recently attended a meeting of community stakeholders including board members, decision makers and members of the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council. 

“They’re scared,” said Henry. “And they have the right to be. It’s a change.”

By bringing together community members and governmental officials, the board hopes to meet community concerns by creating a place to further the conversations of what happens next. 

During the CEC meeting, County Conservationist Ben Wojahn pointed to numerous potential funding pools to help invest in programs that would improve the infiltration of water on private land, and increase resiliency against flooding while lessening the financial burden to individual landowners. He also advocates for the continued involvement of private landowners in programs like USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). 

Watershed groups across the county, including the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council, ​Tainter Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council, ​Rush Creek Watershed Conservation Council and the Bad Axe Watershed Stewards, have also been discussing ways to increase water infiltration and mitigate flooding. Partners at University of Wisconsin such as Professor Eric Booth’s work on flood resilience and woodland practices are also investing in research that explores land practices that can mitigate flooding. 

Wojahn did raise concern about having the design and staffing capacity to coordinate and implement these programs at the scale called for by community groups like the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council––to not only fill in the role the dams once played, but adapt to the increases in rain that the region has been experiencing. NRCS State Engineer Steve Becker echoed this in a community meeting back in January

“I think there is a void that needs to be filled with coordinated leadership on it,” said Becker. “I feel the county conservationists can provide it. I think the federal government can provide the money.”

Supervisor Henry said part of her hope for an advisory committee is that they begin that process. 

“Part of that vision for that (advisory committee),” Henry said, “Is to have the formula, put together with the people and say, this is what could happen at your farm.” 

Henry said she hopes to create a place that can provide the technical and financial support, so that “we just need your commitment.”

Henry, Slack, Wojahn, and Hanan will bring clarified recommendations on what this Advisory Committee will look like to the CEC July meeting. 

The CEC will vote on the proposed decommissioning resolution in the July meeting. If approved, the resolution will be sent to the county board later in the month. Vernon County will be making a decision in tandem with Monroe and La Crosse county, as the waterways that these dams are on flow across county lines, requiring a multi-county decision. 

Vernon County will be one of the first places in the nation to make a decision on decommissioning PL566 dams, which are coming to the end of their infrastructure life across the country. This comes at a time when the country is facing increases in extreme weather events that were never imagined when these dams were first built. This unprecedented moment prompts questions on how communities are going to adapt. 

“We need help coming up with a solution,” community member Winnegar stated, “Because it’s bigger than us.” 

But Winnegar reminds us that Vernon County did this once, back in the 1930s––in the midst of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the Coon Creek Watershed in Vernon, La Crosse, and Monroe County, was the first place in the nation to implement new land management to prevent soil erosion during a coordinated effort between individual landowners, local leaders, educational institutions, and the federal government. The Coon Creek Watershed Project led the way for a new era of farming and land management that protected people’s homes and crops by reversing decades of soil erosion. 

“We did this before,” Weninger said.

“It’s clear that this is not the end, this is the beginning,” said Wojahn. 

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Julia Buskirk

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