High groundwater levels in wake of 2018 flooding causing Dane Co. agriculture losses and home damage

Published: Aug. 19, 2019 at 1:24 PM CDT
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Despite it being nearly a year since historic flooding in 2018, Dane County is still feeling its effects.

On Monday, Dane County officials said while the visible effects of those damaging rains remain 12 months later, the subsequent impact on the area’s groundwater table has caused millions in additional losses this year in agricultural production and brought water into basements of homes that were otherwise dry prior to now.

“Because of the extreme rains last August, we finished 2018 with almost 18 more inches of precipitation than we typically see,” said Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. “The ground and surface water can take a certain amount of that runoff before the sponge gets saturated and the result is the standing water we saw in tens of thousands of acres of some of the most productive farmland in the state.”

Parisi said nearly one in ten acres of cropland in Dane County went unplanted this year. He said depending on the commodity grown, the end result is millions in lost revenue for the county's agricultural economy.

The higher water table is also resulting in increased reports of basement flooding in areas where flooding has not’t been problematic in the past. County officials said there are a variety of factors that make some homes and businesses more vulnerable during periods of high groundwater, including the soil type and drainage patterns.

“We’ve heard reports this year of people saying they’ve never seen water in their basements before,” Emergency Management Director Charles Tubbs said. “They may think the problem is lakes or rivers but actually it’s the water in the ground coming up because it has no place left to go. That’s why we’re encouraging all homeowners to look into flood insurance policies and consider other household preparations – like not storing sensitive documents downstairs – in the event water starts coming in.”

Tubbs also said many homeowners are reporting sump pumps running more frequently than before.

Dane County Emergency Management and Dane County Planning and Development are currently doing an analysis to evaluate the flooding risk for homes that may not fall within FEMA’s floodplain designation, but could be susceptible to water damage in the wake of climate change rain events.

In response to last summer’s flooding, Parisi included more than $18 million in his 2019 budget to improve Dane County’s flood readiness and take steps to mitigate the impacts of future flooding events.

Since the 2018 flood, Dane County has:

  • Acquired 160 acres of land in the Lake Mendota watershed. By restoring it to prairie, Parisi said it will prevent more than 5 million gallons of stormwater run-off that would have otherwise occurred had the property been developed.
  • Developed a multi-year, five phase plan to remove sediment from the bottom of the Yahara River and area lakes. It is expected to improve water flow out of the lakes after heavy rains.
  • Purchased additional sand bagging machines
  • Added weed cutters and barges to remove aquatic plants and debris from the Yahara River and chain of lakes that otherwise can slow the flow of water downstream
  • Ordered a new sheriff’s air rescue boat for water rescues
  • Created a $1 million county fund to help local governments with the cost of rebuilding/repairs of recreational infrastructure damaged by the floods
  • Invested more than $1 million in converting lands previously prone to flooding