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Thoughts on Floods (2021 Edition)

Normally, I put a lot of thought, effort, and editing into these posts - this is not one of those times. We're going to fly by the seat of our pants a bit here...so let's see what happens. These are my Sunday ramblings, for a more thorough treatment of the topic, read the post on Climate Change and Trout Fishing.

We got flooded, again. La Crosse broke a record for rainfall in a day that has stood since 1884. That is pretty impressive. The damage is probably pretty impressive too - lots of images of floating cars were online yesterday. Turn around, don't drown!

The Highway 14 bridge in Coon Valley was closed for part of Saturday, again. As was Highway 162 between Coon Valley and Chaseburg. It is, I think, the 3rd or 4th time I can remember that happening in the 5 years I have lived here. The whole idea of 100--year floods is losing any sense of meaning. When you have experienced a 100-year flood in about half the years in the past decade, the milestone has become pretty meaningless other than to serve as a cautionary tale. It was conceived and calculated in a different time. One with fewer impacts to the watersheds - less impervious surfaces, fewer man-made structures, different land use, and different rainfall patterns.

From: Wisconsin DNR, Evaluation of trout population trends and fisheries management in the West Fork Kickapoo River Watershed


We have been on an upward trajectory when it comes to precipitation, stream flow, and groundwater levels and that has mostly been a good thing. The issue is that when it rains, it pours - quite literally. While we still get "normal" rainfall, we are increasingly getting BIG rainfalls and in some cases - like 2018 - CRAZY BIG rainfall. A little flushing of the gravel, particularly when it occurs after the trout are out of their redds, is a pretty good thing. The Driftless is prone to sedimentation issues. Poor land use practices of the past filled the valleys with difficult to imagine amounts of sediments that were once on the hills - cultural sediment, as we call it. It is today's streambanks and it is easily moved in the floods - and the source of much of the sediment and nutrients issues today.


2018 Flood


Yesterday was not 2018 - that was (hopefully) one for the ages. I have been through no shortage of floods. I was in southeastern Wisconsin in 2008 when the interstate between Milwaukee and Madison was detoured to Janesville for a fair bit of the summer. I have packed my camp up a few times and gotten out of the West Fork Sports Club campground for fear I might not be able to get across the bridges to get home. I remember 1993 which was probably the most significant regional flood event. Floods come in all sizes, durations, and spatial extent. A river like the Mississippi requires a lot of precipitation or a quick snow melt over a large land area; floods like 2018 or yesterday are much more localized.

2018 was one for the ages as the figure from the USGS gaging station at La Farge shows. Records date back to about 1939 for the station and 2018 is a record breaker. Two of the other three largest floods in that time frame are from the last decade. To speak of the local nature of some floods - I remember 1996 on the West Fork when the fishing was going to be "ruined" (it wasn't) and another flood or seven that were going to be the final nail (they weren't). Now, none of this is to say that the floods are not significant and do not have an impact. They certainly have an impact on people, the roads and structures we build, and occasionally on year classes of trout. But trout are so much more resilient than we give them credit for. I am not downplaying this flood (more in the next section...) and 2018 was a game changer - or so it should be - because there are lessons to be learned.

USGS at La Farge flood events
From the USGS - comparing this flood to others. It's a blip - a significant blip - but a blip.

The flood of 2018 broke the Jersey Valley dam near the headwaters of the West Fork along with a few dams on Rullands Coulee and Bohemian Valley (Coon) Creek. Yesterday's flood did not have the energy, the force from a sudden, unexpected release from the dam. I have not seen the impacts anywhere but online for this flood - though I plan to check things out before our work day at the West Fork next weekend. I was there in 2018 after the floods. I felt pretty helpless in trying to help. I bought some bleach, a bunch of bottled water, and some other supplies I felt others could use and gave them out as I could. I brought my chainsaw and did what I could to clear some trees, help at the Skogdalen Church on Rulland Coulee, and cut out the bar from the West Fork Sports Club. I mostly felt rather useless but doing something was better than nothing.

Images from after the 2018 flood.


Below is a video from after the 2018 flood.

And the next one is from yesterday (8/7/2021).

The look pretty awful but they are also tales of resiliency. The West Fork, Coon Creek, and others bounced back from 2018 - not without a lot of help but they did. Yesterday was a pretty significant blip but they rivers will recover again. It is, after all, what they have been doing for millennia.


A History of Flooding


Our rivers are flashy, we have steep-sided valleys that deliver their water quickly, this is nothing new. There is little use fighting topography and geology. Like the people, the streams are resilient. They take a punch and roll with it. A few weeks after the 2018 floods had passed and things were getting back to a new normal - I mean streams were in new configurations and at times in new places in their valleys - the fishing hardly skipped a beat. I am not much for giving up spots but this one is pretty safe. The plunge pool on the right side of the stream is where I got my best fish of 2018. That "honey hole" is now high and dry and today the stream is at least 50 feet from where that fish was caught. The stream was rerouted to help save the structure. A reminder of how streams are dynamic. They are in place for maybe decades and a once in a lifetime event changes all that.

Rullands Coulee
My best fish of 2018 was from that far right plunge pool - now high and dry - after the stream was rerouted.

Communities along the Kickapoo are no strangers to floods. Floods along the Kickapoo are pretty legendary. I have to imagine many that live in and along the floodplain sleep with one eye open when a large storm is forecasted. They have been through it before. It is a pretty sure way to tell how long someone has lived in the valley. Floods are a way of life and they long have been, but they are getting worse.


If you have been to Avalanche recently, you know that things have changed. Most notably, the general store that many of us have very fond memories of is gone. Gone too are a number of other houses in the floodplain. FEMA has bought a number of properties and has turned them over to the county. This is much the same as they more famously did in Soldiers Grove and are slowly doing in a number of other communities - like Avalanche. It is, I think, what we will see more of in the future.


How about the Future?


Nobody knows what is in store for the future but if the recent past has taught us anything, it is to expect more of the same. Quite simply put, floods have been a way of life in Ontario, La Farge, Viola, Reedstown, down to Soldiers Grove, Gays Mills, on down the Kickapoo. Same with Bloomingdale and Avalanche on the West Fork and increasingly, it seems, Coon Valley and Chaseburg on Coon Creek. The people - and the fish - have been resilient, they have bounced back each time that there is a flood. The fish have little choice; the people and communities may be rethinking their situations. It can not be easy to see the history of a place lost but it is not easy to have to clean up and rebuild every few years either. In some communities, the struggle is quite evident.


We would like to think that 2018 is the high water mark and if you made it through 2018, you are probably good for future events but there are no assurances in that assumption. That is the thing with floods, they are unpredictable. They could rebuild Jersey Valley 500 feet downstream as is proposed and it could blow out in a 10,000 year flood. Or it could last for the next 100 or more years. That is the nature of floods.


I do not know a lot about how FEMA has gone about buying property and trying to help move the low lying parts of communities. I do know that there has long been a reason that land on the hills has always sold for more than land in the valleys. It is tough to live in the valley with the unpredictable nature of river and their floods. Just personal opinion here but we need some leadership - and some help - to move out of the most flood prone areas. I just can not see that the future in the most flood prone places is shining all that bright.


That was probably a bit of a ramble - my thoughts on a Sunday after yesterday's floods. Maybe I'll add, maybe I'll edit, after seeing the 2021 flood for myself. In the meantime, unless things change and I doubt they will, there is a work day at the West Fork on Saturday, August 14th that Southern Wisconsin Trout Unlimited is hosting from 9 AM until about noon - RSVP in the comments so I can pass numbers along.


Links


This Blog: Climate Change and Trout Fishing

National Weather Service - La Crosse - Summary of August 2018 Flooding

West Fork Sports Club (Facebook)

WisContext series: Extreme Precipitation and Wisconsin's Climate

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