Stories from the Flood: Extreme Precipitation in the Driftless Area

Contact the authors

Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, associate professor, Composition and Rhetoric, Department of English, UW–Madison, caroline.gottschalk.druschke@wisc.edu

Eric Booth, assistant scientist in the Departments of Agronomy and Civil and Environmental Engineering, UW–Madison, egbooth@wisc.edu

Emma Lundberg, PhD candidate, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, UW–Madison, erlundberg@wisc.edu

With the help of local partners in Southwestern Wisconsin — Vernon County Land and Water Conservation Department, Valley Steward-ship Network, Driftless Writing Center, Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort, Monroe County Land Conservation Department, Kickapoo Valley Reserve — we are working to better understand how floods and restoration projects impact the landscape.

Our research works across the biophysical sciences and the humanities to come to a richer understanding of how individual and policy decisions impact flooding, how perennial grasslands can increase flood resilience by reducing runoff and erosion, and how flooding impacts people’s lives, in hopes of planning together for a better future.

Understanding Driftless Flooding

The Kickapoo and Coon Creek watersheds have experienced at least three 100-year floods in the last decade. The worst of these, in August 2018, caused an estimated $29 million in damage — almost $1,000 per person — to businesses, homes, and public infrastructure in Vernon County alone. A couple of years later, communities are struggling to make repairs and, with the leadership of local community groups, beginning a public discussion about what flood resilience might look like.

The map shows three watershed areas.
Location of Wisconsin’s Kickapoo and Coon Creek watersheds in the Midwest’s Driftless Area.
The map shows four sites restored in 2019 or slated for restoration in 2020.
Kickapoo Watershed showing restoration monitoring site locations.

The major question is no longer whether the next catastrophic flood will happen, but how soon. In response, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and farmers have promoted agricultural conservation practices and stream restoration projects, but efforts are complicated by uncertainty about which approaches might produce the most beneficial impacts.

HOW DO FLOODS AFFECT STREAM RESTORATION SITES?

We conducted pre- and post-restoration stream channel and habitat surveys at Kickapoo watershed stream restoration sites that featured riparian tree removal, streambank resloping, and the installation of riprap and habitat structures. Sampling through August/September 2018 flooding on Conway Creek and July 2019 flooding on Billings and Warner Creeks showed:

  1. Floods can change stream channels as much as construction from stream channel restoration can
  2. Restoring the original slope to an entrenched streambank — without also restoring a wider flood-carrying channel — does not dissipate enough flood energy to prevent flood impacts downstream
  3. Flooding seems to prompt a spike in methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas, from valley streams, particularly when floodwaters enter a restoration site before vegetation has a chance to reestablish post-construction.

How Do Stream Restorationists Shape Streams?

To place these stream changes in their human contexts, we are interviewing and hosting workshops with restoration managers to ask how they balance tradeoffs between flood protection, trout habitat, and agricultural land uses. We’ve found that while managers tend to focus on their own particular interest areas — habitat, hydrology, geomorphology, or watershed-based perspectives — they share some perspectives, as well.

The vast majority emphasize that stream restoration should be done with the goal of recreating a natural and dynamic connection between streams and their floodplains, rather than simply aiming to design a localized static channel and bank form. However, this goal is confounded by the threat of flooding as managers feel pressure to create a stable stream that can ride out the next flood surge unchanged.

At a stakeholder workshop, many managers echoed these views, but also said they felt strongly that channel-focused restoration efforts need to work in concert with land use changes in the larger watershed around the channel. In other words, the restoration of a stream itself, whether resulting in a static channel or a changing one, can’t begin to address the continued impacts of flooding without widespread changes to upland land management practices.

The Power of Story

Science is only part of the solution to future flooding. It is crucial we listen to residents living through flooding and to their ideas about moving forward. We have been working with the Driftless Writing Center on Stories from the Flood, a community-based project to collect and share stories about catastrophic flooding in the Kickapoo and Coon Creek watersheds.

Stories from the Flood aims to help flood-affected residents process their trauma, document the damage of the 2018 floods, and build a community conversation about how to live well together with floods. Through community workshops and individual meetings, an all-volunteer force has collected almost 100 oral history narratives to date, and that archive is growing.

This archive will be central to our collective understanding of Wisconsin’s flood history and changing present, offering a roadmap for communities recovering from the increasingly common impacts of flooding. By the time of the Stories from the Flood Celebration in November 2019, the archive had already documented a widespread acknowledgment that the frequency and magnitude of flooding in the area is worsening. The archive showed that 2018 flooding wrought catastrophic damage on homes, businesses, farms, and infrastructure.

The flood cleanup also left a long-lasting suite of health impacts, including lingering gastrointestinal distress and respiratory issues, and community members continue to suffer the negative mental health impacts of living chronically in the liminal space between two floods. There is a significant need for flood recovery assistance, both financial and emotional, and a need for coordinated planning and better access to recovery resources.

Extensive flooding in the Kickapoo River watershed in August 2018.

Impact of a flash flood in July 2019 on a recently completed restoration project on Billings Creek.

Gays Mills Community Center. Photo courtesy of Tim Hundt.

Student volunteers collect a flood story from Angie and Elmer McCauley as part of the Stories from the Flood project. Photo courtesy of Sydney Widell.

But, the archive is also filled with stories of flood recovery and resilience: of neighbors helping neighbors, community members organizing donation centers, strangers arriving to muck out barns and rebuild houses, community meal sharing, and smart analyses of the strengths communities can build from as they plan for the future.

We need projects like Stories from the Flood that document and call attention to the stories of those impacted by flooding. Communities across the Kickapoo and Coon Creek watersheds, and around Wisconsin, will benefit from addressing the needs that are becoming visible through this work: improved infrastructure, improved flood modeling, updated floodplain mapping, access to recovery funds, prevention and treatment of flood borne illness, and mental health resources.

And, we all need to live in awe and wonder of our region’s waterways, doing our collective best to slow water running off the landscape, to reconnect our streams to their natural floodplains, to support land management practices that address accelerated soil erosion, and to connect with each other to live well together into the future.

Learn More About Extreme Precipitation Research at UW-Madison