VERNON COUNTY - There’s something very poignant about a multi-agency group of Vernon County staff meeting on a beautiful summer day at the site of one of the county’s 22 flood control dams to discuss formation of a ‘Flood Mitigation Alliance.’
This was the case on Wednesday, August 19, when representatives of the Vernon County Emergency Management, Land Conservation, Zoning and Sanitation, Highway, Land Information, UW-Extension, and Economic Development departments joined County Board Chairman Justin Running and Zoning Committee Chairman Eric Evenstad at Sidie Hollow County Park. They were also joined by Tim Hundt of Congressman Ron Kind’s office. The group met in an open park pavilion, with hand sanitizer and social distancing in place.
“We have learned some lessons from watching Monroe County form their Climate Change Task Force,” Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn observed. “Their focus initially has been on some of the low-hanging fruit like putting flood warning systems in place in some of their more problematic watersheds. I don’t think we want to include contentious words like ‘climate change’ in our group name, and I’m not sure that focusing on water level monitoring stations like they’re doing is the right fit for our county. It will be good to be able to learn from Monroe County’s process of implementing their system.”
Zoning Administrator Ashley Oliphant has been on the front lines of the recovery process from the historic 2018 flood event. Her office has had the unenviable task of educating county citizens about the county’s floodplain, shoreland, and flood control dam hydraulic shadow ordinances, and enforcing compliance. Her department has also held citizen input meetings across the county that provided education about the ordinances, and allowed citizens to express their hopes, fears and frustrations.
“People are tired, and they don’t want to feel helpless,” Oliphant said. “They don’t want to keep doing the same things that don’t work.”
Monique Hassman was present to facilitate the meeting. Hassman’s position with the county is a unique public-private-funded position, which has her working half time for the county, and half-time for Valley Stewardship Network.
“The impetus to form this group has come from the growing frequency of severe weather events like catastrophic rainfalls, and now even inland hurricanes or ‘derechos’,” Hassman explained. “There’s a recognition that we need to be strategic, and we need to be proactive.”
Running and Eventad both weighed in on the group’s work and future.
“I think this group has done really good work so far,” Evenstad said. “I’ve taken a lot of notes, and I have a lot of thoughts, and one question I have is whether we need another committee or not.”
“I agree with Eric,” Running said. “I think the county board’s upcoming discussion about the possibility of hiring a county administrator will play into this.”
Achievements to date
Hassman led the group in a discussion of their achievements to date, which include:
• pursuit of grants to fund further study, and/or installation of flood mitigation practices on the landscape. These include grants from Wisconsin Wetlands Association, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Mississippi River Regional Planning Commission
• securing the funding, and moving forward with the USDA-NRCS watershed study for Coon Creek and the West Fork Kickapoo
• development of the GIS-based disaster template by Doug Avoles of the Land Information Office
• expansion of participation in the NIXLE severe weather alert warning system through a communications blitz by the Emergency Management Department
• development of a listing of flood mitigation objectives for the county.
Doug Avoles of the county’s Land Information Office discussed the ‘Disaster Template’ tool his office had and was still developing.
“It is a GIS-based mapping tool that can be updated live, in real time,” Avoles explained. “It will also position the county for long-term analysis of our flooding challenges.”
Avoles said his tool consists of three applications:
• public assistance sought and received for public infrastructure damages, and citizen and landowner damages (2018 is complete)
• an administrators app which documents resources from the public and private sector, such as sandbags, etc…
• call center information with residential and business information
Avoles told the group that his department would be acquiring 2020 LiDAR (light detection and ranging) data, which he said would be delivered in 2021. He said the county is currently using 2010 data.
“This tool is a great achievement,” Wojahn said. “It is really a concrete way to make the lives of our citizens easier in terms of reporting flood damages and seeking assistance.”
Hassman also was full of praise for Avoles’ achievement.
“Other counties are knocking at the door for this template to be created and shared,” Hassman said. “But what this tool really requires is making the transition from information stored on paper in dusty file cabinets into a digital form that will allow us to create the data that will support us in pursuing grants and other forms of assistance.”
Hassman said that thanks to the hard work of summer intern Nyah Forkash, the data for 2018 flood road damages was almost complete. She said what is needed is to be able to statistically correlate the FEMA payouts received with the GIS damage location coordinates.
“We have file cabinets full of this valuable information that urgently needs to be digitized,” Hassman said. “Our county needs to think about how this can be funded – the work can be done remotely, but we need the staff – we need another Nyah Forkash!”
Vernon Community Development Manager Diane McGinnis seemed to agree with Hassman’s assessment of the situation.
“All we can ever be is reactive if we don’t know the details of what happened,” McGinnis said. “What we need to be is proactive, and for that we need the data.”
The group has developed a three-pronged first draft of a list of flood mitigation objects their multi-agency group proposes to focus on. The three categories of objectives are: Mitigation, Public Education, and Technology.
Mitigation:enforce Floodplain Ordinance; seek and secure funding for flood mitigation; identify high-risk areas; implement mitigation practices specific to targeted areas and individual property owners; address agricultural practices to reduce erosion and flooding; operate and maintain PL-566 structures; create and increase capacity for mitigation projects; seek and raise awareness of funding sources for flood mitigation practices; and encourage best management practices, nutrient management, managed grazing, woodland management, CREP, etc…
Public Education:outreach and educational meetings, notices, flood mitigation demonstrations; create, update and disseminate informational materials; encourage and assist public participation in watershed councils and groups; seek and implement public comments; prioritize a centralized location for public information and resources; create and disseminate flood preparedness/recovery guidance; provide flood preparation/response checklists and contact information; and establish and train a volunteer network to respond to flood events and provide consistent messages to communities.Technology:develop and implement damage reporting software; increase capacity for best management practices installation; train staff, local officials and volunteers to use damage reporting software; centralize records and make available to staff and community; use GIS software and tools to seek grant opportunities; develop and implement project and permit tracking software; collect data and perform mapping and modeling; and revise contour and surface elevation maps using updated technology.