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Call for Action: Why Dane County says lowering lake levels won't help stop flooding

Call for Action: Why Dane County says lowering lake levels won't help stop flooding
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Call for Action: Why Dane County says lowering lake levels won't help stop flooding

MADISON, Wis. - Almost a year after historic flooding left Wisconsin homeowners and businesses with more than $200 million in damage, residents who live along Madison’s lakes want to know why local government won’t lower lake levels to protect them from further property erosion. 

The short answer is: it’s not that simple. 

Toffer Christenson lives at the edge of Monona Bay, and in the five years he’s owned his property, he’s watched the water creep into his yard. During last summer’s flooding, his yard was damaged. He’s also recently had to sell his motorboat, as it’s become rare for the water to be low enough to him to boat under the railroad bridges to reach Lake Monona. 

“My pier has become a swim-up bar for the ducks,” he jokes. 

In reality, he’s had to pull half his pier out of the water because it would otherwise be submerged.

Because of these concerns and more, Christenson has a question for his local leaders.

“What is the county doing for people like me in the short term to alleviate any issues that might come up?” he said. “The county has an obligation to taxpayers to help them take care of their property, and this seems like an issue they could solve pretty easily just by lowering the lake level at the beginning of the season.”

That isn’t exactly possible, according to city and county leaders. Here’s the long answer: 

Back in 1979, the DNR set the lake levels that are still in place today, despite lots of changes to the landscape, more rain events and two attempts since 2000 to raise them. John Reimer with the county’s Land and Resource Department told us generally every summer, it is impossible to fulfill those lake levels – we are almost always above them. Madison’s water resource engineer, Jojo O’Brien, echoed that fact. 

“Currently the county's doing the best they can to manage the lake levels in that range, but we have too much water entering the system.”

She’s talking about an increase in the number of rain events Madison sees – more than the average back in 1979.

Aside from too much rain and not enough room, changing lake levels would interrupt a host of other issues, from pier levels for residents and businesses to ecosystems at the nearby Cherokee Marsh. We asked the county what else it’s working on in the short term to protect residents. A technical advisory put together to come up with solutions wrapped up back in March; you can read their recommendations here. The main suggestion is something the county has already implemented – more dredging along the Yahara chain of lakes to get water to move faster out of the system.

In the meantime, there are steps residents can take themselves to be better prepared in case of future flooding. 

1.    Be prepared – this seems obvious, so here are more specific suggestions, per O’Brien. 

  • Read up on where you can get sandbags. The city has information here.
  • Buy plastic sheeting to wrap your sandbags in ahead of time. Stores ran out of this last year during the historic flooding.
  • There can be concern for sewage water creeping into your basement during flooding – purchasing rubber sheeting can help with this issue. 

2.    Utilize the resources the city and county have on the websites. There are a lot of them.

3.    Ask your insurance provider about flooding insurance.

  • O’Brien told us FEMA offers relatively low-cost insurance to people who live outside the flood plain, which encompasses most Madison residents. John Reimer with the county says most flood claims actually come from folks who do not live within a flood plain. 
     

Christenson is aware of most of these tips and says he still wants the government to step up. Doors down, his neighbor is taking matters into his own hands. 

“[He] paid a lot of money to raise his shoreline two feet,” Christenson said. “He’s not waiting for the government to take action. He's took action himself.” 

It’s not a move Christenson himself is ready to take on, but it’s a consideration.

“This is not an issue that we can wait 4, 5 years to figure out,” he said. 

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