The Department of Natural Resources is sending letters to people living near the Caledonia and Lewiston levee system, warning them about the upcoming flood season and the aging infrastructure.
“We felt that it's important to notify the community that water, the high probability that water will be coming down this way and it could be a problem,” DNR southern district supervisor Brian Hefty said.
Hefty said the DNR monitors a 12-mile stretch of the levee along the Wisconsin River and routinely makes repairs. The system was built more than 100 years ago, Hefty said, by farmers hoping to keep flooding off of their crop land.
“It's not actually what they consider to be a true levee. It doesn't meet any engineering standards,” Hefty said. “We don't know what the structure of it is completely, and we want to make sure people are aware of that, and we're not able to predict what it's able to do or not able to do.”
Hefty said the levee was able to withstand record-level water levels four years ago without the river completely breaching the system. However, Hefty said levees usually fail as a result of a number of storm and flooding events, making it hard to predict what this season could bring.
“It's basically a sand berm, and it holds some water during small events, but even that, it can't be guaranteed to do that,” Hefty said.
In the letter to neighbors, the DNR explained the state of the levee and urged people to heed any warnings when flooding is expected to occur.
“We want to make sure that the public is safe as well as our first responders as well as our department staff,” Hefty said.
Portage Fire Chief Clayton Simonson watched the river flood over Summit Street in the spring of 2010 when those record high water levels hit.
“We try to inform them as much as we can, give them as much information as we can, and let them decide whether they want to heed it or not,” Simonson said. “We can't force people to evacuate, but we can help them to prevent the flooding.”
Simonson said he already has 1,500 sandbags filled, leftover from last year. In addition, his crews have rescue boats, a hovercraft vehicle, dirt berm plans and barriers ready to ward off the Wisconsin RIver. Simonson would rather not use those tools.
“It's a challenge for the guys, and we have to be very careful in doing this,” Simonson said. “It's a risk for them, and I would rather have the people come out and stay somewhere else than to risk someone else's lives to get them.”
Hefty said there are no plans to upgrade the levee system to meet modern standards. He said that kind of project would take analysis from the Army Corps of Engineers and likely a lot of funding.
For a more detailed flood outlook for Portage, click here to view the in-depth predictions from the National Weather Service.