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Vernon County Board learns that local watersheds to remain in limbo
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USDA-NRCS Conservation Engineer Scott Mueller updates members of the Vernon County Board of Supervisors at their meet-ing on Tuesday, April 16, about what assistance their department can pro-vide to the county to study the problems with the flood control dams that breached in the August 2018 flooding.

VIROQUA - It was a packed house on Tuesday, April 16 when USDA-NRCS Conservation Engineer Scott Mueller addressed the Vernon County Board of Supervisors. 

Mueller had come to update the board on the progress of securing the funding for a watershed study in the West Fork Kickapoo and the headwaters of Coon Creek. The study would look at the area in the vicinity of the three breached dams up above Coon Valley, and tWesthe Jersey Valley and Mlsna Dams in the  Fork headwaters.

Leaders from the villages of LaFarge, Ontario, Readstown and Hillsboro were in attendance at the meeting to speak in support of the county transferring up to $40,000 from the 2019 Ho-Chunk funding to each of the villages impacted by the August 2018 flood. 

Going a little slow

Mueller told the board that he thinks it is helpful to “be a face, instead of staying in Madison and working through the Vernon County Land Conservation Department.

“Like a lot of things, you’d like them to go a whole lot faster than they do,” Mueller said. “Sometimes they just don’t, and this project is one of those that isn’t.”

Mueller explained that the focus of NRCS immediately after the flooding event was to be out in the field gathering data about the dams that breached, and the ones that didn’t. The goal he said is to write a report documenting what happened, what went wrong, and then applying that information to determine what the agency should be doing differently with structures like this.

“Reports like this were really important back in the 60s when we were building a structure per day,” Mueller said. “It’s not quite so important now, but it is necessary to document what happened and how we got where we are now. Somebody else, 10 or 15 years from now, will have to remember what happened and we’re leaving that record for them.”

Mueller explained that in addition to gathering site data using electric resistivity imaging (ERI), his department has also been researching the old files from when the dams were built. ERI allows for sub-surface imaging of an area, and works best when conditions are wet. NRCS’ focus was to obtain as much data as they could, all in the same time frame, and then wait to do the analysis later. Since conditions stayed relatively mild and very wet well into late autumn, the report-writing is expected to take place this spring.

“We also experienced a delay with locating the old records about the watershed and dam projects,” Mueller explained. “Just two weeks before your area flooded, Madison and Middleton had had a catastrophic rainfall and flooding, and the basement where our records are stored had six-to-eight inches of water in it. We’ve sent some of those records out to be restored, and we’re still waiting to get some of them back.”
“Like a lot of things, you’d like them to go a whole lot faster than they do,” Mueller said. “Sometimes they just don’t, and this project is one of those that isn’t.”
Scott Mueller, USDA-NRCS

What is known now?

Mueller said that the question his department is grappling with is what should be done with the structures, and what about the other structures that are still intact? Do they have the same kind of problems that the ones that breached did?

“The imaging allowed us to see the different types of soil and materials in a cross section of the dams,” Mueller explained. “The areas where the dams abut to the hillsides are more peremeable, which means that those areas conduct more water through them.”

Mueller said the questions are, “what should we do, and what about the other structures – do they have the same kinds of problems? We need to determine what is the prudent thing to do?”

Mueller said that after surveying the breach at Mlsna Dam, his department determined that the breach involved a combination of the hillside as well as the dam itself.

“With Mlsna, it was a mix of the hillside and the dam itself that eroded,” Mueller said. “In 1978, we had a different sort of problem with the Coon Creek 41/Dahlen Dam, and in that case, the erosion was all of the abutment.”

The same research was done on the Jersey Valley Dam, and the research had showed that it was mostly the dam proper and the foundation that had eroded, and not much of the hillside. Of the three dams that had breached in the Coon Creek headwaters in Monroe County, one of them was like Jersey Valley, and two of them were more similar to Mlsna.

Supervisor Rod Ofte asked Mueller if, in his professional opinion, Jersey Valley had been repaired with a concrete spillway, would the breach have occurred?

“If we had had a concrete spillway on Jersey Valley, similar to the ones at Runge Hollow and Duck Egg Dams, I think that it would not have breached,” Mueller said. “Our preliminary research results seem to be showing that the Jersey Valley failure was about 80 percent erosion failure of the dam itself, and if we’d been able to keep the water on a concrete spillway all the way to the valley floor, and dissipated it’s energy, it probably would not have failed.”
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JERSEY VALLEY DAM, located in the headwaters of the West Fork Kickapoo River in Vernon County, was one of the SCS PL-566 dams that was breached following a catastrophic rainfall overnight on Au-gust 27, 2018.

Whats next?

Mueller told the board that the project is moving along, even if slower than anticipated. He explained that NRCS requires that the report on what happened be written by an employee from a different state to eliminate any possibility of bias. He said that the employee responsible for writing the report had been experiencing medical problems, causing him to be “in and out.”

For the project of “cleaning up the mess below the breached dams,” Mueller said that Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) funding is being pursued. If secured, the funding would be used to clean up the debris below the dams and consolidate the materials in one location.

Mueller told the board that the structures in the Coon Creek watershed – five in Vernon County and five in Monroe County – are the oldest PL-566 dams in the area. Because of where the heavy rain set up, the ones in Vernon County were damaged, but not breached.

“We need to decide what the wise thing to do with those structures is,” Mueller said. “Do we put them back as they were or do we just walk away? Should we look at just one structure at a time, or take the time to look at the ones that were damaged and survived to see what we could do differently?”

Mueller said that the NRCS national office wants the Wisconsin office to slow down and look at an evaluation of the total watershed rather than leaping quickly to repair the dams.

“If that rainfall had set up 10 miles south, then you could have seen problems with different dams,” Mueller said. “We need to take the time to determine if the structures are still needed, what condition they are currently in, and generally to take a holistic, watershed-based approach.”

To do this, Mueller explained, it is going to take some time. He said that, based on conversations with his office, the Wisconsin DNR had extended their “Repair or Abandon order” from just six months out to December 31, 2023.

Vernon County PL-566 Dams Manager Mark Erickson explained that the county was very thankful to be working in partnership with NRCS about identifying the path forward for the Jersey Valley Dam.

“Back in 2005, we had determined that Jersey Valley was seeping water, and there had been a fish kill with manure-laden water running downstream,” Erickson explained to the board. “After many meetings with the Land and Water Conservation Committee and the County Board, we decided to go with a private engineering firm and update the dam to the State of Wisconsin High Hazard Dam Standard versus the federal standard. This meant that we had to separate from NRCS.” 

“Obviously if we knew then what we know now, we would have fixed Jersey Valley differently,” Erickson said. “In these kind of decisions, money is always a consideration, and sometimes money speaks louder that it should.”

In response to a question, Mueller confirmed that the study would take into account new rainfall amounts, and deploy more modern technology than was used when the dams were intitally designed.

“If we do decide to work on the dams, work will be calibrated to the new rainfall criteria, which is probably greater than it was back in the 50s and 60s,” Mueller said. “Generally, it seems that the rainfall is greater these days with the same storm.”

Affected communities

Later in the meeting the Vernon County Board heard testimony from communities affected by the August 2018 flooding about the problems they are facing, and what their needs for flood mitigation funding would be. The board passed a resolution, 22 to two, to allocate funds from the 2019 Ho-Chuck payment to these communities. The funding will be used as local match funding for flood recovery grants. 

For example, the villages along the Kickapoo River are eligible to apply for an Economic Development Administration grant through U.S. Department of Commerce which would match 20 percent local, 80 percent federal, for professional research, design, appraisals and economic development and resettlement.

Vernon County Board Chairman Dennis Brault acknowledged the individuals present from the affected Kickapoo River Valley communities, and told Mueller, “the question in front of these communities is what kind of mitigation do they need to look at going forward? I can see that NRCS is proceeding as quickly as you can, but I don’t forsee that this kind of situation isn’t going to happen again, if not this year, then the next. The odds are not in our favor. Can you give some advice to these communities?”

Mueller responded that the best resource for affected communities at this time is the data that goes along with the floodplain maps.

“One thing I’ve learned in my years of working is that there always seems to be a bigger storm,” Mueller said. “We’ve exceeded the statistical 100-year storm level in this area now on numerous occasions, so you can’t afford to stand by and be paralyzed by bigger storms. We don’t know what we don’t know. The dams, when and if they’re repaired, will reduce the runoff from the 100-year storm level, but with them in place, there will always be the possibility that they will breach.”

Supervisor Mary Henry asked what would happen to the landowners in the floodplain in the meantime with the dams wide open?

Erickson responded that those landowners had benefitted for years from the dams being in place and functioning, but at this point it would not be serving the community well to rush to repair without taking the time to understand the best path forward.

“In the Tainter Creek Watershed in Vernon County, we don’t have any dams, and the water just runs free and does considerable damage,” Erickson pointed out. “Landowners will need to understand that for now, the future of the dams is in limbo pending the outcome of the study.” 

Supervisor Will Beitlich pointed out that “the residents downriver from the dams are scared, and any long-range plan will require public input.”

Supervisor Kevin Larson asked Mueller if all the other catastrophes in Nebraska, Iowa and North Carolina are affecting the funding for this project.

“Yes, with EWP funding there is a waiting list and at the moment, all of the funds are committed,” Mueller responded.

Brault commented that there had essentially been a flood somewhere in Vernon County every year since 2007, with his own home having been flooded twice in 2007 and 2008.

“Until the study is finished, it is going to be very difficult for the affected communities in our county to plan for mitigation,” Brault said. “Not only that, we need to think of this problem on a regional basis – not just for our county. What we do in our communities can affect residents downstream as well, so we need to take a regional approach to this situation.”