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Breaches in Vernon and Monroe County flood control dams garner national attention

Breaches in Vernon and Monroe County flood control dams garner national attention

USDA-NRCS Assistant State Conservation Engi-neer Scott Mueller has a long history of working on flooding and flood control structures here in the Driftless. He was present in person to deliver the ...

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POSTED January 26, 2019 9:30 a.m.

VERNON AND MONROE COUNTIES - The breaching of two flood control dams in the headwaters of the West Fork of the Kickapoo River, and three in the headwaters of Coon Creek, have garnered national attention. NRCS Assistant State Conservationist for the State of Wisconsin, Scott Mueller, told members of the Vernon County Land and Water Committee (VCLWC) that the NRCS is strongly considering a comprehensive new study for both watersheds, similar to the one undertaken in the late 1950s that resulted in the dams being built.

“What happened with those dams is unprecedented,” Mueller told the committee. “Nationally there are 12,000 of these PL-566 dams, and we’ve never seen anything like this.”

The VCLWC has been grappling with the dilemma of what to do with the two breached dams in the West Fork, Jersey Valley and Mlsna, since they breached in the early morning of Wednesday, Aug. 29 following a catastrophic rain event. The Coon Creek dams breached in the same time frame, sending a tsunami of water into Rulland Coulee and the villages of Coon Valley and Chaseburg.

The VCLWC knew that an engineering study would be needed, which if paid for by the county had potential to cost the county between $150,000 to $200,000. The committee decided to wait to let out bids pending the outcome of the work of two NRCS engineering teams that visited the site of the breached dams in September. The two teams, one from Oklahoma and one from Stillwater, Minn., came to the area to study the breaches and take measurements for calibration of future studies, because of the unprecedented nature of the damage.

Well, it turns out that instead of providing the VCLWC with a report, they instead attracted the attention of NRCS engineering leadership from Washington D.C. Members of the national team, according to Mueller, had come to the area to tour the damage. They came because “no other watershed with a PL-566 dam has ever gotten the kind of damage that we got here.”

“When the folks in D.C. understood that the Coon Creek watershed where the dams had breached was “that” Coon Creek, it perked their interest,” Mueller told the committee. 

What he meant by “that” Coon Creek was that the watershed was the site of the nation’s iconic first watershed project in the 1930’s, which jump started the cause of soil conservation in the United States and worldwide.

“Since NRCS is the successor agency to the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) that built these dams, and since the dams have now exceeded their 50-year life expectancy, it is time to take another look at the watershed, take into account new precipitation data, and bring the most modern science and technology to bear,” Mueller said.

Mueller further told the committee that through NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection plan funds, “we’re going to clean up our mess with the boulder fields strewn below the breached dams.”

Mueller said that NRCS intends to restore the channel and the floodplain below the dams, and let land uses downstream return to what they were.

“It is an open question whether the dams should be repaired, and it will not be a short process to determine the future course of action,” Mueller said. “The conversations with the folks from Washington D.C. center around whether we should continue to have these dams in place, and we want to support the community in figuring that out.”

Supervisor Rod Ofte seemed glad to hear the news.

“We’ve played the rush-to-fix game too many time now,” Ofte said. “We need to slow down, use all the current data available, and do it right this time.”

The county remains under an order from the Wisconsin DNR to have a plan to either repair or abandon the Jersey Valley and Mlsna Dams by March 19, 2019.

“In the past the DNR has pushed us around about the dams, but I think that surely they will recognize that this is a very different situation now,” Committee Chairman Supervisor Will Beitlich said. “This isn’t just Wisconsin with the national NRCS office involved now – this has become a much bigger deal.”

Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn seemed to agree with Beitlich.

“The NRCS is thinking about all 12,000 of their PL-566 dams throughout the nation,” Wojahn said. “Given the unprecedented nature of what happened here in Vernon and Monroe counties, I think they are starting to think about what the implications of increasingly large rain events will be for all those structures.”

Supervisor Frank Easterday lives and farms in the valley below the Mlsna Dam.

“I’ve lived most of my life below the Mlsna Dam, and I’ve never seen it overtop before,” Easterday said. “I’ve seen it full before, and those dams are scary when they’re full of water. I am definitely in favor of not putting that dam back the same as it was before.”

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