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Communities will have access to funds to identify and mitigate flood risks under bill signed by Gov. Evers

Old 8 Road near Rhinelander is blocked off due to high water levels on the Pelican River.
Katie Thoresen
Old 8 Road near Rhinelander was blocked off due to high water levels on the Pelican River in 2023.

When researchers assess the risk climate change poses to Wisconsin, heavy rainstorms and flooding usually top the list.

Over the last half century, average annual precipitation in most of the Midwest has increased by 5 to 10 percent. Rainfall during the four wettest days of the year has increased about 35 percent, according to the EPA.

Precipitation is expected to increase as the planet continues to warm.

A new bi-partisan bill signed by Governor Tony Evers last week creates new grant programs for communities to assess their flood risks and improve resiliency.

The grants will be administered by Wisconsin Emergency Management. It will allow grants of up to $300,000 per assessment grant and $250,000 per implementation grant to local and Tribal governments, nonprofit organizations, or private consulting organizations on behalf of local governments.

Ron Grasshoff calls it encouraging. He’s a DNR retiree and volunteer with Wisconsin’s Green Fire for the conservation group’s wetlands and waterways work group, among others.

He says things like climate change, building infrastructure over the years, and legacy land uses like agriculture and logging can all increase the risk for flooding.

One part of the new program that caught his attention was the focus on natural flood management.

“That is really critical to deal with, I would say, legacy erosion, and problems with stream channel and stream channel loss of connectivity over the years from difficult different types of land uses. So I think it's a really good start,” said Grasshoff.

Grasshoff gave examples of what natural flood management might look like.

They include road stream crossings that simulate natural flows and reconnect streams to their floodplains, restoring wetlands in floodplains, and farming practices that improve soil health and promote continuous land cover.

"It's reconnecting and enhancing wetland systems in general. Especially in, what we would refer to as our riparian corridors, has numerous effects. Not only to biodiversity, to the natural environment, but also to the built environment," said Grasshoff.

He says it will take time, can be very costly, will need to be maintained, but believes these changes will have lasting effects.

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Wetland advocates have been praising the new law for its benefits to both communities and the environment.

“Wetlands in general, whether they be isolated or whether they can be connected with our wetlands and waterways, they have a number of functional values in terms of water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, natural scenic beauty, groundwater function,” said Grasshoff. “Those are all important functions that wetlands provide in the natural environment, and, in reducing the risks from floods to the human environment, these kinds of restorative measures are going to have values, overall, to the quality of the natural environment.”

In the last 10 years, Wisconsin reported roughly $365 million in property damage from flooding.

In northern Wisconsin, one of the most damaging floods in the last decade was the July 2016 storm that brought eight to 10 inches of rain in roughly eight hours.

It wiped out culverts, roads, and Saxon Harbor in the Bad River Reservation and Ashland, Bayfield, Sawyer, and Iron Counties region.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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