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Is stream bank restoration linked to flood resilience?
Kickapoo Research Projects diagram
SINCE THE 2018 FLOOD, watersheds in Southwest Wisconsin like the Kicka-poo River and Coon Creek have become the subject of numerous studies. While our paper has reported on all of them, this diagram shows how they are interrelated.

DRIFTLESS - Amazing work has been done in recent years on Driftless Area streams to restore the banks and improve habitat. These efforts undertaken by county land conservation departments, WDNR and private groups like Trout Unlimited, help to prevent soil erosion and phosphorous contamination, reconnect streams with their floodplains, enhance fishing opportunities and restore habitat for fish and other species.

In Crawford County, examples of such projects include work on Tainter and Conway creeks in Star Valley on the Rayner property, and on Citron Creek on the Dudenbostel property. In Vernon County, one example includes work on Weister Creek in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.

As it stands, five flood control dams stand breached after the 2018 flood, and the frequency of high-intensity rainfall events has become much more common. As a result, much thought is being given to what combination of approaches to land use can best help to protect Driftless Area communities against flooding. 

Back in the 1950s and 1960s when the flood control dams were built, work plans for the watersheds the dams were meant to control called for conservation land use on ridge top agricultural lands. This was seen as an essential component for the dams to be able to function. 

Others since have pointed to sedimentation from historic soil erosion into the floodplain as another contributing cause of flooding. Yet others point to highly eroded, vertical, stream banks that funnel water in precipitous runoff instead allowing it to spread out and slow down.

Complementing many other interconnected research initiatives that are focused on the Driftless Area, this most recently announced investigation, ‘Interactive Dynamics of Stream Restoration and Flood Resilience in a Changing Climate,’ will bring together researchers from UW-Madison and Indiana University. The group has received $611,466 in funding from the National Science Foundation for their work.

The research team will include Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, Associate Professor in the UW-Madison Department of English; Eric Booth, Research Scientist with the UW-Madison Departments of Agronomy and Civil and Environmental Engineering; Rebecca Lave, Professor and Chair of the Indiana University Department of Geography; and Paige Stork and Sydney Widell, masters candidates in Freshwater and Marine Sciences at UW-Madison.

Methods and questions

 The group will use surveys and drones, and in-person field work, to perform an assessment of geomorphic and ecosystem changes of different restoration techniques in large flood events. Questions the research is being undertaken to answer include:

• How does more frequent and more intense flooding across the Upper Mississippi River Basin alter stream restoration practices, linking or breaking the potential connection between restoration and resilience?

• Are stream restoration practices changing in response to more frequent and intense flooding?

• Does stream restoration reduce vulnerability to flooding?

• How do the people who make decisions about streams (landowners, agency staff) balance potential trade-offs between flood reduction and restoration?

• Can social data be combined with computer modeling of streams and watersheds to create tools that help stakeholders with decisions about stream management?

Project timeline

The work of the research actually began in July of 2018, when Gottschalk Druschke and writers from the Driftless Writing Center began to compile ‘Stories from the Flood.’ This is a collection of personal recollections from citizens in the Kickapoo River and Coon Creek watersheds of flooding and how it impacted them. The team also interviewed streambank restoration managers, biologists, conservationists and engineers.

In the course of this work, which resulted in a book ‘Stories from the Flood,’ the team collected 75 oral histories from over 100 residents. In addition to the book, the team is expected to release a findings report and public-facing map in April of 2021. Their work will also be contributed to the Vernon County History Museum to be a resource for the community.

Researchers have also been engaging in ongoing monitoring of stream bank restoration projects on Warner and Billings creeks in Vernon County, and Tainter and Conway creeks in Crawford County. Additional demonstration sites will be added to the teams monitoring efforts in coming years.

In 2021, the team will undertake geomorphic surveys that lead to flood hydraulic modeling. They will also continue to conduct interviews with landowners and stream managers. In 2022, they will engage in an analysis that will lead to watershed modeling. In 2023 they will conduct workshops with stakeholders in the community about their flood hydraulic and watershed hydrologic modeling, and then refine their models based on input received. In 2024, they will hold another stakeholder input meeting and then conduct a follow up survey. In 2025, they will publish their report recommending next steps.

Project outcome

The work product of the research effort will be a ‘FloodScape Decision Support Tool.’ The launching point for the effort will be the model for flood control generated from the USDA-NRCS study of the Coon Creek and Kickapoo River watersheds designed to help Vernon, Monroe and LaCrosse counties plan the future of the five dams that breached in the 2018 flood. From this, the team will generate ‘what if’ scenarios:

• Change land use/management in individual subwatersheds

• Change stream-floodplain connectivity along certain stream reaches

• Visualize the impact of these possible changes on downstream flooding.