VERNON COUNTY - The Vernon County Land and Water Committee continued to grapple with challenges associated with the breach of two of the flood control dams in the county and damage to several others. At their meeting on Thursday, Oct. 11, there was discussion of proposals to use Ho-Chunk funds for various conservation purposes.
The meeting was attended by Committee Chairman Will Beitlich and Vice Chairman Kevin Larson. Other committee members present were Supervisors Rod Ofte, Kelli Mitchell, and Frank Easterday, Vernon County Board Chairman Dennis Brault, Zoning Administrator Susan Burkhamer, and Carol Hall of FSA were also present, as was County Conservationist Ben Wojahn. Farmers from the Tainter Creek Watershed Council present included Grant Rudrud, Jeff Ostrem and Berent Froiland.
A large part of the committee’s meeting was taken up in consideration of eight proposals for the funding conservation initiatives from the Ho-Chunk funds. Among those eight were expenditures on the Jersey Valley, Mlsna and Swenson dams; beginning a program of county-wide groundwater testing; and funding of two limited term positions for the purpose of mapping damages from past flooding events, and making project plans for future installation of conservation practices.
Mark Erickson, the county’s PL-566 Dams Manager led the discussion about the proposals to spend funds to help repair the Jersey Valley, Mlsna and Swenson dams.
“The DNR is requiring us to have a plan to repair or abandon the dams by March 19,” Erickson said. “As far as the order to draw down Ostrem, I’ve asked them if we can fix the dam using NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP) exigency funding, will the order to draw it down be void. I’m still waiting for an answer.”
Erickson explained that the Ho-Chunk requests for the dams is intended to provide the matching funds for the EWP funding or for additional funds that may become available from the State of Wisconsin.
Supervisor Rod Ofte asked what had been learned from the various USDA NRCS teams that had been on site evaluating the dams.
“The first team from Oklahoma really just had a mission to glean information that they could use in their modeling,” Erickson said. “The second team from Stillwater documented the damages, and began using a transit to survey the breach surfaces, and will likely be able to provide us with some information by the end of November.”
Erickson explained that the county basically has three choices:
· Abandon the dams
· Repair them to pre-flood condition with concrete spillways
· Rehab them to an upgraded condition as was done with the Klinkner Dam
“We can complete the abandonment or the basic repair in about the same time frame,” Erickson said. “But a rehab, taking into account new precipitation information and new standards, will take about three to five years.”
“We can’t approve funds for requests that aren’t specific,” chairman Beitlich said.
“We’re going to have to spend the money anyhow, so we might as well reserve the funds now,” supervisor Ofte said.
“We’ll need to have the matching funds available in order to take advantage of opportunities that arise through NRCS or the Corps,” Wojahn said. “The specific requisitions will go through the committee when we have more concrete information.”
“We need to do the right thing the first time,” supervisor Easterday said. “Those dams are scary when they’re full, and we’re seeing increased amounts of water running off the hillsides these days.”
“I think you should forward the recommendation to the Finance Committee to set aside the funds, earmarked for use as matching funds,” county board chairman Dennis Brault said.
The committee voted to pass along their recommendation to approve the funds to the finance committee.
Well water testing
Wojahn explained that his request for well water testing funds would be used to conduct sampling, similar to what the Tainter Creek Watershed is doing with DATCP funds, in a couple of townships per year. He proposed a 50/50 cost share between the Ho-Chunk funds and landowners.
“Lafayette and Grant County have embarked on a program of well water testing, and they are essentially way out in front of Vernon County,” Wojahn said. “We need the testing to protect public health and safety, and to help us determine priorities for conservation.”
Berent Froiland reported on the Tainter Creek Watershed Council program to the committee.
“We’re pretty excited about the program, and very interested to see what kind of water we’re drinking,” Froiland said. “We weren’t sure we’d get enough interest to do 40 tests, but actually we got 43 requests and more are expressing interest.”
Froiland went on to explain that the advantage of working with the UW-Stevens Point Center for Watershed Science and Education is that the price for their services is a great value, and they follow up on the testing with a presentation to the community about the general test results. All individual test results are completely confidential to the landowner.
“We’re hoping that what we find out is that we have good water,” Grant Rudrud said.
The committee moved to send the request for well water testing funds forward to the finance committee.
Limited term positions
Another request for expenditure of Ho-Chunk funds was for two limited term positions. The request was proposed by the Land Conservation Department, in concert with the Zoning, Highway and Emergency Management Departments.
The funds would be used to create two limited term positions for the purpose of mapping damages from past flooding events, and making project plans for future installation of conservation practices.
“In order to take advantage of funding opportunities, we need detailed data about where the damages occurred, attached to parcel-based information,” Wojahn explained. “We could combine the two proposed positions into one, but I don’t think that would be wise.”
Wojahn went on to point out the example where the Town of Shelby had spread $250,000 worth of gravel just the week before the late August storm, only to have it all washed away. Now they are replacing that gravel and paying for it twice.
“This is a great example of the kinds of costs that these positions would help to prevent in the future,” Wojahn said. “The positions would easily pay for themselves by avoiding repeated repair of the same infrastructure.”
Tainter Creek Watershed Council farmers Grant Rudrud, Jeff Ostrem and Berent Froiland attended the meeting to represent the watershed council, speak in support of creation of the two positions, and deliver a petition signed by members of the group.
“My grandpa used to grow tobacco where the Jersey Valley parking lot is now, and we never used to see so much water running off the hills,” Rudrud observed. “And the county farm where I used to work as a manager is now all paved over with asphalt and cement too. My grandpa farmed using terraces and strip crops, and those conservation practices helped to fix a lot of problems. There’s less erosion now, but there’s sure a lot of water running off. We need to figure out where all this water is coming from, and I don’t think it’s wise to fix the dams if they’re just going to break again.”
Berent Froiland from the Tainter Creek Watershed Council, presented the group’s petition, and said, “the members of our group are especially interested in the position to map past damages. We kind of got our start after the September 2016 floods which did a lot of damage in the Tainter Creek Watershed.”
Valley Stewardship Network (VSN) Executive Director Shelly Brenneman stated that she thinks it is important to fund both of the two distinct positions, and that VSN would match the $75,000 request to pay for a year of the project design position, and provide in-kind matching services for the mapping position.
“We have an in-house GIS specialist who could assist with the mapping project, and we can also cover the cost of the prairie installation from an existing grant,” Brenneman said. “We would, however, prefer to see the position housed with the county.”
After more discussion, the committee voted unanimously to forward the request to the Vernon County Board’s Finance Committee.
The Finance Committee of the Vernon County Board will meet at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18 in the County Board Room at the Courthouse in Viroqua.