VIROQUA - A meeting of the Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department was held on Thursday, Sept. 13, in Viroqua. At that meeting, the LWCD Committee heard reports from experts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, USDA NRCS, and the Land Conservation Department, on the damages and the need for assessments and repairs of the county’s flood control dams.
The committee chairperson, Vernon County Supervisor Will Beitlich (Stoddard), and vice chairperson, Supervisor Kevin Larson (Viroqua) were present the meeting. Other members of the committee present for the meeting, included Supervisor Rod Ofte (Coon Valley), Supervisor Kelli Mitchell (Hillsboro), and Supervisor Frank Easterday (rural Westby). Vernon County Board chairman Dennis Brault was also in attendance, as was Vernon County Conservationist Ben Wojahn, Resource Conservationist Mark Erickson, USDA-NRCS District Conservationist Sam Skemp, FSA Representative Carol Hall, and Nathan Campbell of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The meeting started with an acknowledgement of Hurricane Florence, which was taking aim on the North Carolina coast.
“They could get 40 inches of rain,” observed Larson. “I’m glad we’re not there.”
USDA-NRCS District Conservationist for Vernon County Sam Skemp talked about a potential special flood-related sign-up for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and also NRCS services through their Emergency Watershed Protection program (EWP).
“I’m trying to get a feel for what the damages are right now,” Skemp reported. “From there, I’ll begin to evaluate the need for an EQIP sign up, and also what kind of EWP resources might be available.”
Skemp explained there are two types of EWP funding available. ‘Exigency’ funding applies to projects needed to protect property and lives, with work needing to be completed within ten days of approval of funding. Other EWP funding kicks in after FEMA has awarded funding, assuming there is a presidential disaster declaration. EWP money can help go beyond that funding for infrastructure work.
Corps of Engineers
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Senior Civil Works Program Manager Nathan Campbell spoke to the group about the kinds of services the Corps could provide to help in flood recovery.
“Our agency is primarily an asset to your county with the long game,” Campbell emphasized. “Through our Civil Works program, we can assist you with watershed studies.”
“What can the Corps do to help us ensure this doesn’t happen again? Supervisor Ofte asked.
“We’re the federal government – there’s a bureaucracy – our assistance will take time, and isn’t oriented toward immediate solutions,” Campbell responded. “Cost share for studies and construction with the Corps are 65 percent federal and 35 percent local.”
Ofte commented that “perhaps we need to take another look at our watershed. The dams looked like solutions 50 years ago, but maybe the conclusion of a study would be different now.”
County Conservationist Ben Wojahn reported that Campbell is currently working with a team of hydrologists in the Kickapoo and Coon Creek watersheds to determine models. This work had started prior to the recent flooding, and involves the Small Watershed Protection and Stream bank Protection programs.
“Our hydrologists are out in the field now determining what the high water marks are,” Campbell said. “We have to go out immediately after an event to obtain this information as it disappears over time. This information is important for calibration in our studies.”
Vernon County PL-566 Dams Manager Mark Erickson provided a report to the committee on current problems and projects with the 22 dam structures. One maintenance project on a dam in the Bad Axe River watershed, planned for this fall, is being postponed to the summer of 2019.
Vernon County is home to eight dams in the Bad Axe River watershed: Raaum, Duck Egg, Runge Hollow, Thompson, Eagle’s Park, Skildum, Sidie Hollow and Tally. In the Coon Creek watershed there are five dams: Struxness, Swenson, Garlic, Melby and Dahlen. Monroe County has seven dams in the Coon Creek watershed: Coon Creek 21, 23, 24, 25, 29, 31 and 53. In the West Fork Kickapoo watershed, Vernon County has nine dams: Jersey Valley, Ostrem, Hidden Valley, Seas Branch, Jacobsen, Clockmaker, Yttri/Primmer, Klinkner and Mlsna.
Erickson told the committee that the three structures he is proposing receive an engineering assessment are Jersey Valley and Mlsna, which breached, and Ostrem, which overtopped and has suffered damage.
“The DNR has issued the county an order to either repair or abandon the Jersey Valley and Mlsna dams,” Erickson reported. “The order to draw the lake down behind Ostrem was also delivered recently.”
Chairman Beitlich commented that while fixing the dams will cost money, abandoning them would also likely cost the county about $1 million.
“Looking at the pictures of the cut at the Jersey Valley Dam don’t do it justice,” Erickson said. “The cut tore out the auxiliary spillway and left a boulder field downstream. The level in the lake is down 12 feet from its normal elevation, and is still in the process of draining.”
Erickson detailed that Lepke Construction is at the scene of the breach, working to stabilize the eroded bank. He said that the current condition of the dam is a threat to public safety.
“We can work to stabilize the structure,” Erickson said. “But any time it rains, lake water levels will begin to rise, and water and material will begin to flow. It’s a potentially flashy situation.”
Erickson went on to explain that the situation at the Mlsna dam, which also recently breached after a catastrophic rain event on Tuesday, August 28, is very similar to that at Jersey Valley.
There was discussion of the haphazard and random distribution of the intense rain bands, which had overwhelmed and breached Jersey Valley and Mlsna, but just overtopped nearby Klinkner and Ostrem.
Supervisor Frank Easterday (rural Westby) queried Erickson about why Ostrem and Klinkner held, and nearby Mlsna and Jersey Valley breached.
“Each dam did not receive the same amount of water,” Erickson said. “For instance, Seas Branch got minimal water compared to Hidden Valley. They are all micro-watersheds, and each is unique.”
Easterday offered his own opinion of the situation.
“I think part of the reason is that Ostrem has better grass coverage above it,” Easterday noted. “If it had all been in corn, it would have been worse. The breaches start where there is dirt instead of grass – Mlsna and Jersey Valley don’t have enough grass up above. I think that if Jersey Valley and Mlsna are rebuilt, they should be smaller. When they are full, they’re kind of scary.”
“Like Jersey Valley, the sandstone in the hillside at Mlsna eroded and the clay of the dam held,” Erickson explained. “This left a huge boulder field downstream, and has blocked the driveway access of Paul Conrad to his property.”
Conrad addressed the committee, and asked what the county would do to help him gain access to his property.
“The biggest mistake with the dam is that there aren’t any smaller dry dams upriver from it,” Conrad opined. “And the dam also should have had a concrete and steel auxiliary spillway.”
Wojahn commented that the committee has been considering the value of putting in farm ponds and dry dams above the dam.
“Since the flood, the creek has changed course,” Conrad said. “Now, it flows over my road and I have no way into my property.”
Erickson explained to the committee that the old creek bed flowed nearer to the road, and it has now moved across the valley, moving through the spillway pipe.
“It never used to go over Paul’s road, but now its old channel is filled with rocks and boulders.”
Erickson explained that the assessment process, if the committee approves that to go forward, would be potentially a one-to-six-month process. He reported that he had gotten the go-ahead from the DNR to allow measures to shift the water back into its channel in the meantime.
“We will do what we can to help you,” Chairman Beitlich said. “But, ultimately restoration of your road is your responsibility.”
Erickson reported that Ostrem Dam had overtopped the entire width of the dam for the first time ever.
“We’re very lucky it held, and I’m crossing my fingers about its stability,” Erickson said. “The dam is damaged by a hole where the water started to cut into the spillway and scour the groin where the dam meets the hillside.
Now, a week after the August 27-28 rain events, Erickson said, the hole is two times the original size from overland flow and ongoing rain. The dimensions of the hole is six feet deep, 22 feet wide, and 100 feet long.
Erickson told the committee that through EWP Exigency funding, he has obtained plans and specifications to shore up the structure to address the immediate threats to public safety. The project will involve excavating the clay to bedrock, filling it in with wash rock, rip-rap and clay, covering it with geotextile, and then covering all that with soil. This work is intended to route water away from the dam. The same kind of work is being recommended for the Hidden Valley Dam in the Seas Branch tributary.
“This work is urgent, and the paperwork to obtain federal funding has already been completed,” Erickson explained. “We estimate work can begin in the first week of October, and the cost is estimated at $20,000, with federal funding paying 75 percent.”
Other impacted dams
Erickson went on to explain that his team also has concerns about the Klinkner, Hidden Valley, Melby, Swenson and Clockmaker dams.
“This is the second time that Klinkner has overtopped,” Erickson said. “The first time was in July of 2017. The dam was re-habbed in 2002.”
Erickson reported that the Hidden Valley Dam had been repaired after it overtopped in August of 2007.
“We installed a concrete cut-off-wall to repair a cut that was three quarters of a foot deep and 300 feet long.”
The Melby Dam, one of the county’s smaller dams, is in the Vernon County headwaters of Coon Creek. He said that the highway department had taken rock from the plunge pool that was blocking the stream, and used it to stabilize the slope.
The Swenson Dam, just west of the Rod & Gun Club Camp, had its access road destroyed. The water eroded 25 feet of the sod, taking it closer to the abutment to the hill. With the Clockmaker Dam, the access road has been fixed, and it has a relief drain which worked hard and transferred a lot of water, according to Erickson. There was also a small cut at the end of the spillway, which was repaired right Immediatley.
Erickson told the committee that there is currently an Oklahoma-based NRCS team out performing assessments of the Jersey Valley and Mlsna dams. Next week, there will be another NRCS team from the Hydraulic Research Station in Stillwater.
“I recommend that we hold off on contracting for the assessments until we can evaluate the information we receive from these teams,” Erickson said. “If we hire for an assessment, Jersey Valley will cost between $100,000 to $150,000, and Mlsna will likely cost another $50,000.”
Supervisor Ofte commented that “fact finding is one thing, but we also need to address not only the ‘could we’ question, but also the ‘should we’ question about repairing the dams.”
Chairman Beitlich said the committee would need to understand what the possibilities for funding for the assessments would be as well.
“Do we start soliciting bids now, or wait to see what the NRCS teams tell us,” he asked. “We will definitely be taking this up at our next meeting, or we can call a special meeting.”
County Conservationist Wojahn emphasized that his team is leading a fact finding and addressing immediate threats to public safety effort at this time.
“At this point, no one is saying yes, fix them, or no, don’t fix them,” Wojahn said. “We need to make full use of the federal services that are available to us first before we start to take the next steps in decision-making.”
Chairman Beitlich added that part of the project in assessing the dams is to determine the need to add smaller dry dams or farm ponds up above the structures. “Maybe we need the Corps to conduct a watershed assessment for us?”
Supervisor Ofte commended Mark Erickson for all of his tireless work, both during the crisis and ongoing.
Vice Chairman Kevin Larson (Viroqua) said he thought that before the committee starts recommending changes to Jersey Valley to the county board, there would likely be a need to obtain public input.
“In my district, the Amish love to go down to Jersey Valley and fish,” Supervisor Easterday said. “We need to try to come up with the best solution for everyone.”
“FEMA’s approach is that they will repair the structures to their pre-flood condition,” Erickson explained. “Beyond that, you have to apply for FEMA mitigation funds, and upgrades to these dams are unlikely to be funded through that program.”
Erickson said that the preliminary numbers have already been submitted to Emergency Management. He reported that beyond FEMA funding, there are likely cost share dollars to go “above and beyond” with repairs and upgrades.
Chairman Beitlich thanked Erickson and the Land Conservation Department team for all their hard work through the crisis.