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The floodwaters were rising rapidly and dangerously and the rain showed no sign of abating. The front street had become a raging river and the creek in the backyard had already spilled over its banks and into the Gavin family’s basement. The waters were now also lapping at the rear of the family’s Cross Plains home of three years. The Gavins had a choice to make each of the three times firefighters came to check on them in the summer of 2018.
Stay or leave.
As everyone from the deniers to the experts say, no one weather event proves that global warming is real. But this event that played out along a swath of Dane County with devastating effect on Aug. 20, 2018, was part of a pattern that suggests that our climate is changing rapidly.
A year after that major flooding event, groundwater levels remained high and nearly 10% of cropland throughout the county was still saturated and unavailable for cultivation.
Local concern for climate change has only increased over that period as well. In September, more than 1,000 students from around Wisconsin marched to the state Capitol demanding environmental policies that more directly address climate change. They chanted and staged sit-ins outside the offices of lawmakers as part of a global Youth Climate Strike taking place in more than 100 countries.
And as is happening around the world, experts say Madison and the surrounding area are experiencing hotter and wetter weather and more extreme events resulting from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They add that Madison’s landscape – chiefly its lakes and watershed – may be uniquely vulnerable to further flooding brought on by climate change.
The flooding of August 2018 left no easy decisions for families such as the Gavins.
The family of six had already taken in one stranded motorist and had tried to help one other person. They futilely bailed out water from their basement and watched the passing of a military-type vehicle from a local gun shop – put into service by firefighters because other vehicles couldn’t navigate the flooded streets.
What had started as a sprinkle transformed into an unrelenting torrent for the rest of the day and part of the next.
“Watching the water rise in our basement and outside our windows was terrifying,” Melissa Gavin recalls. “We had no idea when the rain would stop, or how high the water would go, especially whether the basement windows would hold. The flood waters burst through the windows of several neighboring homes, quickly filling their basements. We agonized about whether our basement windows would withstand the rushing water, and if they didn’t, how fast we would be able to get out. Nobody slept that night.”
The Gavins stayed, knowing that if the water in the basement reached the first floor, the two adults, four children and the stranded motorist – a young woman – could retreat to the second floor.
The Gavins were luckier than others on their street and elsewhere in Dane County. They had flood insurance – one of only 17 Cross Plains households that did. It didn’t cover all of the more than $15,000 worth of damage, but it was better than nothing.
Others were hit harder. The massive flooding in western Dane County in August 2018 caused more than $154 million in damage and one death.
It was, experts say, a potential harbinger of things to come for the Madison area.
A Pattern Emerges
The state has experienced a 4-inch increase in annual precipitation since 1961. The effects of this 13% increase in average rainfall often goes unnoticed. But when 11 to 15 inches drop in a matter of hours, Mother Nature grabs our attention. John Young, director of the Wisconsin State Climatology Office, and assistant state climatologist Edward Hopkins say what makes this area uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change is also what we enjoy most about the area – the Yahara chain of lakes.
The more than 11 inches that fell overnight west of Madison and the 4 inches that the city got in that August 2018 storm filled Lake Mendota to near-record levels. The Tenney Park Lock and Dam, which already maintained a high water level, opened its gates and Gov. Scott Walker declared Dane County to be in a state of emergency.
Water tables were already high because much of Madison’s isthmus is impervious surface and the little ground that wasn’t impervious was already saturated.
“Too much water was flowing in and we [couldn’t] get it out fast enough,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi recalls. “The water had to go someplace.”
Much of it went into the lakes and as of last August, a year after the big storm, the four lakes – Mendota, Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa – remained at near 100-year levels, according to Dane County figures. Groundwater levels have made some farmland look more like lakes and ponds than cropland.
“Nearly one of every 10 acres of cropland in this county went unplanted this year,” Parisi says.
Christopher Kucharik, professor and chair of the agronomy department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, citing data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and the National Weather Service, says three of the six wettest years ever recorded (since 1869) in Madison have happened in the past several years – 2013, 2016 and 2018.
All of the extreme weather and increased runoff portends poorly for the area’s lakes.
Here’s how James Tye, executive director and founder of the Clean Lakes Alliance explains it: “When you look at Madison, the greatest impact comes from our system of lakes – our miles of lakefront,” he says. “If their health is impacted, this represents the health of the community. They are the heartbeat of our community.”
The community then, in a sense, is running a fever. That’s because of blue-green algae blooms – cyanobacteria that is fed by all the phosphorus running off the land and into the lakes from both rural and urban sources.
Madisonians have seen the results: Intermittent blooms that cause a stinky, brightly colored film to form on lake surfaces that render the water too unhealthy and slimy in which to swim. Algae blooms also diminish the ability of lake species to thrive and allow heartier invasive species to take over.
After that August 2018 storm alone, some beaches were closed an additional 221 days, according to a state of the lakes report compiled by the Clean Lakes Alliance.
One pound of phosphorus (plus adequate amounts of nitrogen and carbon) create 500 pounds of algae. According to a 2012 alliance report, Lake Mendota has an average annual load of 73,480 pounds of phosphorus entering the lake from all sources – Lake Monona 43,820 pounds, Lake Waubesa 29,060 pounds and Lake Kegonsa 37,720 pounds.
The alliance and its partners call for a 50% reduction in phosphorus loads entering each lake in the Yahara chain. An upcoming Yahara CLEAN Compact, comprised of all the major actors in the watershed, will be reevaluating whether these targets are still valid in the face of climate change, says Paul Dearlove, deputy director of the alliance.
The alliance and its partners list 14 things that must be done to improve the health of the lakes, including better management of the agricultural runoff that contains the fertilizer and nutrients on which algae thrives.
Also key is how Madison and Dane County handle the community’s build-out. Development brings an increase of impervious surfaces unable to absorb rain water. Existing developments have to be retrofitted to allow runoff to seep into the ground, and future development has to take into account the environmental consequences of erosion and runoff.
The fate of the lakes is greater Madison’s fate. The two are inextricably intertwined.
Average daily temperatures have been increasing annually in Wisconsin, according to the state climatology office. From 1971 to 2018, there was a 2.7-degree increase statewide, and in winter, the daytime temperatures increased 5 degrees over that period.
“Winter temperatures across the state have increased the most over the last 40-plus years,” Hopkins says. And while Wisconsinites may feel like they’ve suffered through hotter summers in recent years, too, he says, the average summer daytime temperatures “have been increasing only slightly.”
This trend is likely caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases and water vapor in the atmosphere, he says.
“In the past seven years, the highest temperature anywhere in the state has not gotten above 100 degrees,” Hopkins says. “Madison has experienced nine or fewer 90-degree days each year over the last 15 to 20 years.”
That’s little comfort, however, to disadvantaged populations – those who have trouble escaping the heat, such as the very young and very old. For instance, two fires at Madison Gas and Electric substations knocked out power to more than 12,000 Madisonians in July, prompting authorities to open up the Kohl Center and three schools as public cooling stations.
Milder Winters Not Good News
Another downside: Those rising temperatures will result in milder winters. This is unwelcome news to winter sports enthusiasts, snowmobilers and snowblower sellers, to name a few. Milder winters, however, allow ticks, mosquitoes and other pests that spread disease and harm crops to thrive (read more about crops and climate change here).
The fourth National Climate Assessment, completed in November 2018, states that globally ticks and mosquitoes (and other “disease vectors”) that carry and transmit Lyme disease, West Nile virus, dengue fever and Zika virus are expected to expand their geographic range and seasonal distribution.
“Warmer weather allows ticks and mosquitoes to do better farther north, and the seasons [in which] these vectors are able to transmit the diseases is a longer season – earlier in the spring and later in the fall,” says Keith Reopelle, director of Dane County’s Office of Energy and Climate Change. “In recent years we have found ticks on our dog as early as March and as late as November. That never used to happen.”
The northward advance of disease-carrying bugs is bad news for humans, too.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that the Gavins’ Cross Plains house was flooded in the August 2018 event, Jack Gavin, 8, came down with flu-like symptoms during that critical time. The symptoms got progressively worse as the boy began hallucinating.
Doctors determined that Jack had contracted a tick-borne bacterium, Borrelia miyamotoi, resulting in something akin to Lyme disease. A prompt dose of antibiotics successfully treated the symptoms but, Melissa Gavin says, doctors can’t say with certainty whether the attack was a one-off or will be a recurring affliction for her son. Jack, she says, was only the sixth person to contract the disease in Wisconsin.
“From what we know about climate change, we’re going to see pattern changes,” she says. “The ticks are not being frozen out.”
The Fight is On Locally
Because many federal officials downplay or outright deny evidence of climate change, much of the burden to take action has fallen on state and local governments.
This is not lost on many Madisonians. Thousands of local workers and students participated in September’s Global Climate Strike to demand action on climate change.
Some action is being taken locally to address the effects of climate change.
The Dane County Office of Energy and Climate Change, with partners including the city of Madison, is preparing a Climate Action Plan. Its goals put the county on the path to deep decarbonization – to create a “carbon-negative” economy – by 2050, says Reopelle.
The next 10 years will be critical, he says, because those spikes in global warming have to be halted or significantly slowed over the next decade if we are to avoid catastrophe. The plan calls for:
— Meeting a third of Dane County’s electricity needs with solar power by 2030
— Meeting half of Dane County’s electricity demand with wind power by 2030
— Increasing the percentage of electric vehicles sold in Dane County to 40% of the total
— Processing half of all cow manure in Dane County via digesters by 2030
Furthermore, Parisi says the county is undertaking a multiyear project to remove accumulated sediment in the Yahara River in order to improve flow and reduce flooding.
The county has already purchased 160 acres of farmland near the Pheasant Branch Conservancy. After that farmland is restored to a more natural state, it will have the potential to absorb 2.6 million gallons of phosphorous that won’t go into a lake, Parisi says.
“It’s not just the rain events, it’s three times the amount of groundwater flowing into [Lake] Mendota than last year,” he says, arguing that more uncovered soil is needed to absorb rainwater and runoff.
To help address this, matching grants will be awarded to municipal projects throughout the county which will reduce stormwater runoff. Flood mitigation will be addressed in the county’s 2020 budget. So, too, will first responders’ equipment needs, Parisi says.
Limiting the Damage Through Prevention
But many of these efforts plan only for the aftermath of an extreme weather event. Prevention is key.
“The decades ahead will bring changes in climate much more profound than those already observed; in some cases those changes could occur more rapidly than plant or animal species can adapt,” states a landmark 2011 report, “Wisconsin’s Changing Climate: Impacts and Adaptations.” An update is in the works by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, a group formed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and UW-Madison.
Two of the many contributors to the 2011 report were Dan Vimont, director of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research and a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at UW-Madison, and Steve Vavrus, senior research scientist at the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research.
Vimont and Vavrus say that the decade they spoke of in the 2011 report is upon us, and so are those changes. They point to the strong economic advantages of nurturing green alternative energy sources, which create jobs and confer a broad economic benefit. But both say they’ve heard arguments that solutions such as this are too expensive or disruptive.
“Not doing anything is the most expensive,” Vavrus says.
Tia Nelson, former executive secretary of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Land and now managing director of the Outrider Foundation’s Climate Change Program, agrees. “We know what the solutions are and we have the technology to implement them,” she says. She also notes that it’s “everything” that will help, not just one thing.
“There is an inevitable amount of climate change that is going to happen,” Vimont says. The challenge is working to “limit as much climate change that happens.”
Melissa Gavin was a believer in the effects of climate change before her house was flooded and her son got sick. Her job as chief network officer for the RE-AMP Network is to work to decrease greenhouse gases regionally.
But her personal experiences had a galvanizing effect. She has helped spearhead an effort in Cross Plains to address climate change issues. An ad hoc sustainability committee has been formed.
The lesson of Gavin’s experience is simple: Climate change is a global phenomenon but the impacts are felt locally. She says that calls for forward-thinking local action, wherever you are.
“We need to do better for all of our kids,” she says.
O. Ricardo Pimentel is a longtime journalist now living in Milwaukee.
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