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Climate Change Task Force pursues resilience
Monroe County
Monroe CCTF logo

MONROE COUNTY -Monroe County’s groundbreaking ‘Climate Readiness and Rural Economic Opportunity Assessment’ is proceeding on schedule, according to Wisconsin Greenfire’s Heather Stricker. 

The forward-looking project aims to create a template that other counties can replicate to position themselves to meet the challenges posed by climate change. It will also allow counties to position themselves to use those challenges as opportunities to grow their economies.

Stricker told members of the Monroe County Climate Change Task Force (CCTF) at their meeting on July 7 that the project would take place in four phases. Phase One, she explained, is essentially complete. That first phase included defining the scope of the project, and initiating its activities. This phase also included community workshops that were held early in the project.

The current phase the project is in, Phase Two, utilizes sub teams on climate and hydrology, flood resilience and infrastructure, forestry and agriculture, to assess vulnerability to climate impacts and the adaptive capacity of populations and community assets. This phase will be completed by August 31.

Monroe County Conservationist Bob Micheel announced that his department would hold a field day demonstration event on Wednesday, August 4.

“The agriculture sub-team will use this event as an opportunity to demonstrate opportunities for conservation practices that are co-beneficial to water quality, climate change, and healthy forests,” Micheel said. “This will be a kickoff, and we expect that it will really take about two years to get some really good demonstrations going.”

Stricker added that the goal with the demonstrations will be to deploy as many nature-based solutions on the landscape as possible. She said that the demonstrations would be more characteristic of Phase Four of the project, after the first three phases were concluded by the end of 2021.

Phase Three of the project, according to Stricker, will be to use the modeling and assessment to begin definition of an adaptation framework and strategies. This phase will involve more community workshops and other means to obtain input from county citizens. These workshops are expected to take place in September. 

Monitoring stations

Monroe County Land Use Planner Roxie Anderson reported on the status of the project to place rainfall monitoring stations in the Kickapoo River and Little LaCrosse River watersheds.

“All of the stations we have been able to purchase have been deployed in the field,” Anderson explained. “We had a few technical issues with the water level sensors that we’ve been working out, but the rainfall measurement has been working perfectly.”

Anderson said that they are holding the remaining amount of donation funds received to use as matching funds should any of the grants they’ve applied for be awarded.

“FEMA has contacted us indicating that we will likely be eligible for a $40,000 grant,” Anderson explained. “With the 25 percent matching funds of $10,000, that would be enough to purchase 10 more rain monitoring stations.”

Anderson said they hope to hear back about this grant in the next several months. 

In addition, Anderson reported that they have also worked with Senator Baldwin’s office to fill out a form to apply for congressional funding. This is a congressional earmarking process, and the United States Geological Survey would be the agency through which the funding might become available. Anderson reported that the county could be eligible for as much as $200,000, which would allow them to purchase the rest of the planned stations and complete setup of the data platform.

Anderson reported that their main contact at the LaCrosse office of the National Weather Service, John Wetenkamp, had left to take a job in Montana, but had “passed the torch on to another person on staff.”

Crossings inventory

Micheel reported that the two summer interns hired by the county to begin work on a stream crossing inventory are making good progress.

“They have completed the towns of Portland, Jefferson and Sheldon, and have now moved on to Wellington,” Micheel said. “Our goal is for them to complete work in the southern part of the county this summer.”

Micheel said that the next meeting of the CCTF will take place on Wednesday, August 4, from 9 to 11 a.m. At that meeting, the task force will hear a report from the two interns. Then, in the afternoon, there will be a field day and demonstration project kickoff event as part of the Greenfire project.

Coon Creek Dams

Micheel reported that USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) had just held public scoping meetings to obtain input on their economic analysis and recommendation for the future of the flood control dams that breached in August of 2018.

“The outcome of the economic analysis of the three breached structures in the Coon Creek Watershed is that NRCS is recommending decommissioning them,” Micheel reported. “With the other structures that are still standing, they are currently beyond their 50-year economic life, and so their fate will be a future decision.”

Micheel reported that in the big picture of watershed management, there is an initiative afoot to form a producer-led watershed council in the Coon Creek Watershed. This group, if formed, will explore ways for landowners to mitigate the impacts of intense rainfall events in the watershed.

“The West Fork Kickapoo is different,” Micheel explained. “NRCS is recommending decommissioning the Mlsna Dam, but keeping the Jersey Valley Dam because of its recreational value.”

Micheel sited parallels between the situation with the dams in Southwest Wisconsin and the ‘Paradise Fire’ in California. There, according to Wikipedia, “the ‘Camp Fire’ was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California's history, and the most expensive natural disaster in the world in 2018 in terms of insured losses.

“Named after Camp Creek Road, its place of origin, the fire started on Thursday, November 8, 2018, in Northern California's Butte County. Ignited by a faulty electric transmission line, the fire originated above several communities and an east wind drove the fire downhill through developed areas. After exhibiting extreme fire spread, fire line intensity, and spotting behaviors through the rural community of Concow, an urban firestorm formed in the foothill town of Paradise.

 “Drought was a factor: Paradise, which typically sees five inches of autumn rain by November 12, had only received one-seventh of an inch by that date in 2018. With the arrival of the first winter rainstorm of the season, the fire reached 100 percent containment after seventeen days on November 25.

 “The fire caused at least 85 civilian fatalities, with one person still missing as of August 2, 2019, and injured 12 civilians and five firefighters. It covered an area of 153,336 acres (620.5 km2; 239.6 square miles), and destroyed more than 18,000 structures, with most of the destruction occurring within the first four hours. The towns of Paradise and Concow were almost completely destroyed, each losing about 95 percent of their structures. The towns of Magalia and Butte Creek Canyon were also largely destroyed. By January 2019, the total damage was estimated at $16.5 billion; one-quarter of the damage, $4 billion, was not insured. The Camp Fire also cost over $150 million in fire suppression costs, bringing the total cost of the fire to $16.65 billion.

“The same month, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), the utility company responsible for the faulty power line, filed for bankruptcy, citing expected wildfire liabilities of $30 billion. On December 6, 2019, the utility made a settlement offer of $13.5 billion for the wildfire victims; the offer covered several devastating fires caused by the utility, including the Camp Fire. On June 16, 2020, the utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

“The Camp Fire is the deadliest wildfire in the United States since the Cloquet fire in 1918, and ranks number 13 on the list of the world's deadliest wildfires; it is the sixth-deadliest U.S. wildfire overall.”

“I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called ‘Rebuilding Paradise,’ and I was struck by the similarities between their situation and ours,” Micheel said.

Tim Hundt from Congressman Kind’s office stated that he was “still trying to digest” the NRCS economic analysis of the flood control benefits of the dams.

“I am somewhat shocked that they are using outdated Atlas 14 data from 2012 in their economic analysis,” Hundt stated. “They have the new data with updated rainfall amounts from Dr. Eric Booth of UW-Madison about updated rainfall trends in the Driftless Region.”

Hundt stated that it seems that use of the outdated 2012 Atlas 14 rainfall depths data is “skewing” NRCS estimates of the value of the flood protection of the flood control dams in the West Fork Kickapoo and Coon Creek. He said that they are also not calculating the  benefits of regenerative agricultural practices in the watershed.

“Government, by default, is required to use Atlas 14 data in their economic analysis,” Micheel pointed out. “Atlas 14 data is cumulative rainfall data for the Driftless Region between 1950 and 2012. In the engineering design world, the outcome of Dr. Booth’s data is huge – between 0.5 to 1.0 inches of increase in rainfall associated with different levels of rainfall events. But, calcualting the ‘curve numbers’ takes into account old land conservation practices such as terraces and strips that don’t account for regenerative soil health practices.”

Micheel said that calculation of the benefits of these kind of practices can account for small rainfall events, but don’t help with a 500-year or 1,000-year rain event like our area is increasingly seeing.

“To deal with those kind of rain events onto the landscape, you also need to add in the flood protection of the dams to make a difference,” Micheel said.

“The ten-year fluctuations in rainfall is a very short time frame compared to the 50-year economic life span of the dams,” LaCrosse County Conservationist Matt Hanewall pointed out.

Tony Townsell, Public Affairs Officer for Fort McCoy in Monroe County, pointed out that the Department of Defense (DOD) has been taking the impacts of climate change seriously all along, despite political upheavals.

“The DOD sees climate change as a threat to national security and our ability to implement our mission,” Townsell said. “The DOD has conducted studies looking at the future, and there are multiple examples of military bases in the U.S. suffering the impacts of climate change, and taking steps to improve our fire and flood resilience across the nation.”