Living in a flood zone for the past week has caused me and many of my neighbors to contemplate how we can better manage our lakes and rivers to reduce the risk of catastrophic flooding. While the City of Madison, and other local units of government, with the assistance of the National Guard, have responded to the current flood admirably, managing a crisis well does not solve the long term problem. Even prior to the recent flood, since 1971, there have been seven Presidential disaster declarations for Dane County due to flooding. Record high water levels for lakes Mendota and Monona occurred in 2000, and for lakes Waubesa and Kegonsa record high levels occurred in 1996. All those records were broken in the current flood and lake levels on Lakes Monona, Waubesa and Kegonsa, continue to rise. In addition, smaller scale, localized flooding occurs on an annual basis.
The record levels that each of the lakes in the Yahara Lakes Watershed have reached is another way of saying that these lakes and the Yahara river never flooded as badly as they have in this episode. I have lived in the Tenney Park neighborhood for 32 years, and I have never seen flooding like this.
In fact, the flooding has been so bad, this is the first time I have ever seen the National Guard in my neighborhood.
While our entire neighborhood and indeed, the whole city is grateful for the help from the National Guard, we must rethink how we manage the watershed to avoid these catastrophic events.
The easiest thing that can be done to help avert future catastrophic flooding is to lower Lake Mendota’s level to its natural level, which is 5-8 feet lower than it is normally kept by the Tenney Dam. The primary reason it is kept so high is to accommodate large pleasure boats and their owners. Since these lakes do not carry freight, there is simply no justification to put our entire region at risk of flood just so large boats can operate on these lakes. Here is a map that shows the current shoreline as compared to the natural shoreline, about 5 feet lower.
My experience for the past 6 years, as Chair of the Goose Lake Watershed District in Adams County, is that Wisconsin’s law provides many tools for appropriate lake and watershed management. Wisconsin law provides for the creation of public inland lake protection and rehabilitation districts. While the powers of these districts do not specifically include flood mitigation measures, they do include the authority to engage in conservation of natural resources within the district.
In 1989, the Wisconsin legislature authorized the creation of the Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission, which has been in existence since 1990. The problem, however, is that this Commission is merely advisory to the County Board and has no governing authority. Indeed, an examination of the Commission’s Flooding page on its website reveals that there are no measures being taken by the Commission to prevent flooding. Moreover, since the Commission includes every lake, river, and watershed in Dane County, it is not solely focused on the unique needs of the Yahara Lakes Watershed.
Therefore, while the Dane County Board, can and should do many things to more appropriately manage the Yahara Lakes Watershed, history has demonstrated that competing interests of all those who use the lakes have shown that the County Board is simply not doing all that needs to be done to accomplish the healthy management of this critical watershed. Of course, local, state and our federal governments all need to do more to address climate change which has made catastrophic flooding a regular occurrence in many places around the country. However, since we are already living with the impact of climate change, we must learn to manage our lakes better and provide ourselves with the governmental tools to do so. Creation of a Yahara Lakes Watershed District should be a first order of business in the aftermath of the current floods.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.