Blog Post: We are not meeting the moment

We have a watershed crisis that rivals the Dust Bowl, and we need a solution as big as the problem.

June 11, 2024

by Tim Hundt

Talk to anyone who has lived in our watersheds for any length of time, and they will tell you that something has changed. We all know it. It isn’t even a question anymore. In the last 15 years the behavior of our weather events has changed, and the Kickapoo River and Coon Creek watersheds have been pummeled relentlessly. 100 or 500 year floods every few years will change a person’s perspective. Forget the phrase “climate change”. It isn’t even a part of the discussion. The people out here just know.

The last few years we all feel like we dodged a bullet. Like we are sort of “getting away” with something. The last few years the weather has been fairly normal, and we have not had severe rain or flooding. We even had a much drier than normal year, and I know human memories are often short, but anyone who has lived through the trauma of these flood events is not buying it. It is all a temporary reprieve from what we all know is the new normal. Drought or no drought, every time it rains, we all tighten up and move to a safe place and hold our breath. Here it comes ….

I know I am not the only one that feels and acts this way. In 2019 I was part of the “Stories from the Flood” project. The Driftless Writing Center began collecting stories about people’s experiences during the floods over the previous 10 years (or more) and it was quickly obvious there are a lot of people who were dramatically changed by these weather events. The people who were willing to share their stories about loss and trauma, about helping others, were almost universal in their feelings that something has shifted. You can feel the change in the people as much as the environment. There is just no denying it.

Viola – 2018

Following the 2018 floods I was covering the recovery efforts in the Coon Creek and Kickapoo River valleys. I can’t even count the number of “flood recovery” meetings I attended in Ontario and La Farge. Coon Valley, Viola and Readstown. Meetings facilitated by community leaders, FEMA and economic development leaders. Meetings to help with cleanup. Meetings to help rebuild. Meetings to reinvent what communities could be in the wake of this “new normal.”

I was driving home from one those meetings when it hit me what needed to happen. I had been covering flooding and watersheds for decades and the picture was suddenly very clear. Driving away from that flood recovery meeting I started pulling bits of information together I had stored for years, and I knew I had to try to help others see the problem, and maybe some solutions.

What triggered me at that particular meeting was the story of a young man who was displaced by the flood. This man listened all evening to the stories about resources, and FEMA, and community recovery plans. As the meeting was about to end, he spoke and said he had been flooded numerous times. In 2007 he had water in the basement. He got some assistance and replaced some items. Not too bad considering. In 2008 the water got to the floorboards of his house. He received some help to cleanup and recover. Some damage to floors and walls but he was able to fix and recover. In 2018 he had two to three feet of water in his house. The room went quiet. He had been sleeping in a camper for weeks. He said he was not going to repair his home this time. He said he had a mortgage and this time he was probably going to walk away. It just wasn’t worth it to rebuild when it was likely he would be right back in the same boat in a couple of years. And the amazing part was, no one in the room could argue with that. Everyone knew that was not an unlikely scenario. That’s when it hit me that people in these communities are between a rock and a hard place, not able to leave, and not able to stay. Something had to change.

Near Soldiers Grove 2018 – Tim Hundt photo

I went home and wrote a letter that I sent to everyone I could think of. All the elected officials and organizations that could help the situation. I needed them to understand that this is a big problem. I needed them to understand that we needed to do one of two things, we need to get people out of the way of flooding or do something to help make the flooding less damaging. Or maybe both. But something needed to be done.  No one could see the scale of the problem, much less propose any fixes. We see it because we live it. I saw it because every couple of years I would be reporting the disaster, the cleanup, the recovery and rebuild. Repeat.

When I was helping organize the story collection process for The Stories from the Flood project, we had one of the staff people from Project Recovery help us with training on how to collect stories. Project Recovery had been working throughout the area helping people following floods. They would help connect people to resources and many times they were the first point of contact after a disaster. They warned us, you may get people who completely break down when they tell their story because it might be the first time, they have really thought about it and that can cause them to have emotions that had not been dealt with up to that point.

Ontario 2018 – Tim Hundt photo

I had this happen to me on more than one occasion. I remember standing with a woman outside of her business that had been flooded with several feet of water. A beautiful historic building. It was several days after the flood and the water had receded. As I asked her to tell me what had happened you could see her slowly walk through the whole thing in her mind and as she relived it she broke down in tears. It was the first time in days she had taken the time to think.

The trainer also explained the typical cycle a person or community goes through in a disaster. The shock, then feeling overwhelmed, then a burst of energy as people and communities come together to work together to get things back to some kind of normalcy. Then there is often a crash and possibly depression as the work through what just happened to them. Eventually most people get to some kind of normalcy after some time, but not all.

What struck me as we talked about that was how often some of the communities in our area have been through that cycle. Most of the communities along the Kickapoo. How many times since 2007? Coon Valley, Chaseburg and Stoddard. Unlike other places that get hit once every 50 or 100 years, these places have been devastated multiple times in the space of 15 years.

That letter was asking for a big project like first Coon Creek in the1930’s. I called it Coon Creek 2.0. A big forward-thinking solution for big existential problem. Some way to help people and communities get out from between the rock and the hard place.

Civilian Conservation Corp camp – Coon Valley

I would later end up working for one of the people I had written that letter to, Congressman Ron Kind. While on his staff I was still trying to sound that alarm about the unseen problem in our area. Just as we were about to do some events around that issue COVID hit and shut everything down, and we spent the next three years helping people through, and past, the pandemic.

Also, around that time the federal government announced it had approved a $1.6 million study to look at what happened in the 2018 floods. Two dams in the West Fork Kickapoo and three dams in the Coon Creek had failed. It was said that no where else had that many dams all failed at the same time. That got people’s attention.

I was excited because I thought, well, great. Finally, someone is paying attention, and they will do what the federal government did in the 1930’s with the first Coon Creek project that invented all those conservation practices we take for granted today. Contour strips, crop rotation, terraces, grass waterways, drop structures. All the things that stopped the Dust Bowl and saved the country.

Coon Valley 1954

As time went on, what I discovered was the study was not an experimental project like the 1930s. It was a study focused on the PL566 flood control structures in those watersheds. There are about 12,000 of those PL566 dams across the country. There are about 88 of them in Wisconsin and 23 of those are in Vernon County. In the Coon Creek there are 14 if you include the ones in Monroe and La Crosse Counties. There are nine in the West Fork.

These dams were built mostly in the 1960’s and 70’s to even out the damage caused by periodic flooding. In the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s the area was hit by frequent flooding that caused infrastructure and property damage and even loss of life. They were built by the federal government, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and then turned over to the local government to maintain for the next 50 years.

What the study did was look at the cost/benefit of these dams. Both looking back and looking forward. I will save you some time and tell you what they found was the dams were pretty much a wash, or they lost money if you look the cost of building and maintaining them versus the cost of what they protected. A whole team of engineers, economists and hydrologists looked at variables in 12 different areas and said … these things just aren’t worth it. They are well past their life expectancy of 50 years, and they are built on crappy geology. Crumbly loose sandstone. Nearly all these dams leaked, almost from the day they were built.

The dams are also not built to handle our increasingly intense weather events. They were built to handle 6.5 inches of rain in 24 hours. It is not uncommon now to get 10, 11, 12, 14 inches of rain in 24 hours.

Jersey Valley Dam 2018

The study also looked at the cost to replace the dams with new ones. I will save you some more time. They would be exponentially more expensive than the original ones because we now have technology to stop that leaking, but it costs a lot, and building that many dams to that new standard would be tens of millions of dollars. Again, it is more costly than what they are protecting (according to the study). I once heard someone describe this as trying to build a car that would survive a freight train. You can do it, but is it worth it?

The conclusion? All the dams in the West Fork Kickapoo and Coon Creek will be “decommissioned”. They will be “notched” and not hold any water. For all intents and purposes, they are being removed. We will be back to square one.

At first, I had a hard time wrapping my head around this. For 15 years I have been trying to sound the alarm about this problem and find ways to combat that problem that is getting much worse. All the numbers in the study added up. All the calculations were there and yet, I cannot let go of the idea that at a time when weather events seem to be double what they were, we are going to do ….less? This just does not make sense. It feels like we are going the wrong way on a one-way street.

Coon Valley 2018 – Jon Lee photo

As I sat in all the public meetings with the engineers and decision makers through this process, some things became clear. This was not a proactive search for a creative solution to mitigate the impact of this obvious ecological shift we all know is here to stay. This was a narrowly focused look at dams that are at the end of their life that posed a liability. I know that because it was stated in a meeting that now that multiple dams had failed, and they have shown their weakness “at some point another one of these dams will fail and we (the federal government) don’t want to be responsible.” It was also stated that unlike previous projects, this study was strictly about the dollars and showed that the dams were not worth it. “The first time around the engineers were driving the bus and the economists were along for the ride. This time around the economists are driving the bus, and the engineers are along for the ride.” Not the creative, forward thinking study I was hoping for.

After leaving the federal government I decided to join the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council (CCCWC) as a board member. I had attended many of their meetings and although they were one youngest farmer led watershed groups in the county (out of four), their mission seemed to match mine. Bringing more people from all walks of life, not just farmers, that are focused on finding a watershed wide solution to a watershed wide problem. This group has a lot of energy, and folks are jumping on board. And this was also my home watershed. The place where I grew up.

Wisconsin’s Producer Led Watershed Groups were set up as a way for farmers to form ground up organizations that let farmers meet where they live and share ideas about practices. This is not some government agency. This is producers talking to producers. The groups have really taken off in the last few years. At least five farmers within the same watershed must be involved to get off the ground and initially the state offers some seed money for the first few years, and then the hope is they will be self-supporting. There are currently 47 groups across Wisconsin.

The CCCWC has already gone beyond the startup phase is already a 501c(3) that is building a base that is beyond just producers. The idea is that a big solution will require everyone, not just producers.

Coon Creek Community Watershed Council farm tour

As the NRCS completes its report (Planning Environmental Impact Statement or PEIS) that calls for the decommissioning of the dams and submits it at the federal level, the CCCWC has been vocal that this all feels like this is all moving in the wrong direction. Yes, the dams are old and worn out, and they would be too expensive to replace. And they really only handle a 25, 50 or maybe a 100-year flood, but what are we supposed to do now if the little bit of flood protection we had gets removed? The numbers all make sense but the lack of vision about where we are in time and the size of the problem feels very wrong.

As I and other members of the CCCWC have questioned the decommissioning and lack of plan for what comes after we have been met with interesting comments about why there is not much that can be done. At least not much beyond what is already being done. Encouraging farmers and landowners to adopt more practices that will slow the water down. To help it soak into the ground quicker, preventing as much water as possible from running into the watershed.  Indeed, there is much that can be done with current practices. Cover crops, buffer strips, encouraging producers to return contour strips and grass waterways. Our land and water conservation department here in Vernon County is investing about $65,000 a year into small “farm ponds” that are very effective and can help offset the loss of the large dams. But five or six small ponds on private land over two large watersheds will take decades to have an impact.

Coon Creek Community Watershed Council farm tour

We were not making change fast enough before the plan was to take the dams away, what is going to happen when they are gone? At the current rate of change, even with all the amazing things our local land and water office is doing, we will take decades to move the needle enough to make any difference to what is happening in our watersheds.

That is why I have repeated my call along with the CCCWC to go beyond what the normal course of action is. We need a project that will test new practices to see what works and what doesn’t. Just like the original Coon Creek project in the 1930’s. They reversed a mostly man-made ecological disaster by trying things. They had no idea what contour strips were. They invented them. They had no idea what crop rotation was. They invented it. They proved what worked and then they proved to farmers they it would help them stay on the land. And they changed the world.

As the CCCWC and I have asked for this bigger vision and bigger solution, we have been met with lots of reasons why that cannot happen.  I am not sure if that is because people cannot see the size of the problem or that the solutions seem too daunting. Whatever the reason, it feels as though we are potentially missing an historic chance to solve these issues, not just for us, but for the whole country.

Here are just some of the statements given by public officials at public meetings when challenged to develop a bigger solution for what comes after the dams.

  • I think the folks in Coon Creek are a bit misguided.
  • This is all privately owned land. We can’t make people do things on their land.
  • The problem is too big. You can’t engineer your way out of this.
  • We can’t stop flooding. With the amount of rain we get now, you can’t stop flooding.
  • We just need to do more of the same.
  • We lived without the dams before; we will be fine if we take them out.
  • Coon Creek and others are asking for a one-to-one return, and that is not possible.

The challenge I would put to anyone trying to solve this large daunting problem is, if the folks who came out here in the 30’s had said any one of those statements, would they have solved the erosion problem and reversed the dust bowl? If we keep using this language, guess what the outcome will be? The outcome has been predetermined.

I have thought long and hard about why there is so much resistance to coming up with a bigger solution or at least trying new approaches. And I am pretty sure it is because it is hard to see the problem. Or more specifically the size of the problem. If you look at the report (PEIS) you can see that in terms of dollars and cents, the impact will not be huge. The “breach route” or the area immediately below these dams that shows what is impacted if a dam fails is long and narrow. The floodplain does not expand to vast areas if the dams are removed (at least according to modeling). What I think they don’t see or understand is the “human” cost of these events. It cannot be calculated in dollars, and it will not fit into a formula.

Ontario Community Hall – 2018

It is the community of Ontario who lost their community building where they held their fourth of July festivities and their Christmas celebrations every year. Every meeting in Ontario the building would come up and despite their best efforts the building could not be saved. Stories of dances and who met there and later got married. Stories of community and the sense of identity. Now lost because the flood 2018 took the center of their life. Could they create something else up on the hill above the flooding. Probably. Will it be the same? A very optimistic village leader did his best to keep the community positive, reminding them, it won’t be the same be the same, but it could be better. And that community is taking great strides to build back better, but the impact is undeniable.

Coon Valley Baseball Field – 2018

It is the community of Coon Valley, that besides having numerous homes damaged or destroyed in the 2018 floods has had their park and ball-field destroyed in 2017, 2018 and 2019. It is the community of De Soto that cannot use their ball-fields multiple years in a row because they are so waterlogged they have to move their summer youth programs to another town. I don’t think anyone calculating the cost of these disasters could possibly calculate what it means to lose youth baseball in a community like Coon Valley. It is the heartbeat of that community. It is where kids go, and parents go, all summer. It is the center of life. My older brothers played there. I played baseball there. My kids did. It is just what you do there. It is life.

It is the community of Gays Mills that has businesses and residents that refuse to move despite projects that moved much of their community after 2008. New retail spaces, new housing, buildable lots and a community center. 21 homes were raised above the 100-year flood plain after the 2008 flood. All 21 of them had water in them in 2018. 40 locations were still eligible for buyouts after 2018. Some residents and businesses still did not want to relocate, even with buildable lots available on higher ground. Why? They feel like their identity is being taken from them. Their sense of place. Their home. Community leaders are terrified that if that homeowner of business owner takes that buyout, it will be their opportunity to fly the coop instead putting down roots in a new part of town. The more people leave, the smaller the tax base. The smaller the tax base, the smaller the town or village. One less business or home on the tax rolls. One less piece of their town.

I do not believe you can calculate these impacts in dollars and cents.

I also do not trust the projections that say the impact of removing the dams will be minimal. We have been told the water will come up quicker, but it will go down quicker. What we won’t have to worry about is the wave of water like the one that did so much damage in 2018. All that stored energy is released at one time.

Coon Valley 2018 – Tim Hundt photo

But one estimate makes me question those calculations. It has been said repeatedly at meetings that when all the dams are removed in the Coon Creek, the water level at the bridge in Coon Valley will only change six inches during a flood. The problem with that number is, with only three dams out of commission, the bridge in Coon Valley has been closed by the DOT twice since 2018. Once in July of 2019 and again in August of 2021. That means the water level was high enough that the DOT felt it could be up to the bridge deck, or it posed a structural threat. Those rain events were both less than six inches, and one happened over two days. So with only three dams gone the water was up to the bridge twice, but if we take the remaining 11 dams out the water level would only change six inches?

The first piece of what I called for in that 2018 letter is already happening. Communities are moving along the Kickapoo. That migration started in the 1970’s with Soldiers Grove. Gays Mills started the process in 2008. Ontario, La Farge, Viola and Readstown came together and got a grant to develop flood mitigation plans after 2018. Each community is in various stages of implementing those plans. They are developing areas for business and residents to move to. Somewhere between $10 and $15 million in mostly federal dollars for each community is helping get communities out of harm’s way. New housing, gas stations, commercial lots, retails spaces. It is happening right now.

But I am now convinced that if we are going to solve this, we must tackle the second half of what I called for in that letter. A plan to help slow the impact of flood water. It will take a belt and suspenders to solve a problem of this size. And it will take everyone, not just farmers.  We are that second piece. But we need help. We need resources, coordination, technical assistance and planning.

And the potential payoff of a large experimental project, just like the first Coon Creek project, could help set the stage for solving multiple problems on the national level. We need the next level of conservation. If we develop practices that can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals or fertilizers while increasing water infiltration, we not only help flooding runoff, but we also potentially help solve big picture water quality issues. Local wastewater treatment facilities are asked to take phosphorous out of the water. Usually at the cost of millions of dollars. And often for small rural utilities that only have a small number of rate payers. It doesn’t cost much to put these things in the water, but it costs a lot to get them out. What if there was less phosphorous in the water to begin with? The clean water act imposes regulations on nitrates and phosphorus in lots of areas. What if those things are greatly reduced by the same practices that help increase water infiltration? And the soil will be more drought resistant because it is storing more water. The potential for a win, win, win is right there.

I realize looking back now that my life has been weaving in and out of these watersheds since I was born. I grew up the youngest of 10 kids in a 160-acre dairy farm at the very top of the Coon Creek Watershed. Through a process of osmosis, I soaked up the conservation ethic that had been instilled in my father, probably by the very people who invented conservation, literally right here in the Coon Creek.

I wrote about how those conservation lessons came back to me after I attended the 75th anniversary of the Coon Creek Watershed demonstration project in 2008. The brass from the federal agency that grew out of that first watershed project, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) attended that event. Only then did I realize, viewing the watershed from a journalists perspective, the ramifications of our little Coon Creek, and the things invented here had on the rest of the country. The piece I wrote for the Vernon County Broadcaster was titled “Watershed celebration a reminder of past lessons.” The point of that piece was that only when I looked back could I see that these traditions were passed onto me without me even knowing it. They were just in me. I had learned by watching my father, who had been taught by some very forward-thinking people who figured out a better way.

I wrote how some smart forward-thinking people had come together to try new things and solve a problem that must have seemed unsolvable. And how it would be easy to blame farmers back then for what happened, but it was really only because they “just didn’t know any better”. I ended that piece by asking, what are the things we are doing now that someday we might look back on and say, “we just didn’t know any better”?

Little did I know that about 15 years later we would be in exactly that spot. And just like the Coon Creek project in the 1930’s, we are facing a mostly man-made whole watershed problem. We are once again the canary in the coal mine. It is happening here first, but it will be happening everywhere. We have already shown the pattern of disaster over 15 years. How many more 100 or 500 years do we need before we act? And what better place to try a forward-looking project to tackle this?

I do have hope that we can get enough momentum to do what we did back then. Even the State Engineer that wrote the report recommending the decommissioning of the dams sees it when he said:

“When the record of decision is rendered on this project, I know our agency will take it a step farther. The watersheds are missing some things. Coordination, demonstration farms, and things that are in other parts of the state that aren’t here, and I hope we can kind of be a part of that.”

I do hope we will follow through on that sentiment to find a bigger solution. We are at an historic moment. We must meet this moment with the creativity and forward thinking that we used in the 1930’s. We need a solution that meets the moment and meets the size of the problem.

Vernon County, along with La Crosse and Monroe County will vote this month to sign off on the plan to decommission these dams. They will likely vote to do just that. I get it. I understand the pressure to take to deal that the federal government has offered to pay for all that work with no burden on the local taxpayers. And Vernon County will get the lake back at Jersey Valley to boot. A sweet deal.  I just worry that without tying that deal to a commitment for what comes after, we have made a problem that we all know was already here worse, and with no written commitment from anyone to provide a solution that meets the size of the problem.

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