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A more resilient river

Collaborative efforts across municipalities and citizen groups aim to share plans and solutions in the face of past and future East River flooding

By John McCracken

The East River in Green Bay as seen from Optimist Park on Lawe Street on Nov. 1, 2021. Multimedia Channels/ Josh Staloch photo

At the corner of Cass and Hartung Street Dave Fowler urged a varied group of city planners, environmental advocates, municipal leaders and concerned citizens to not let sunny days go to waste.

“This is the perfect time to talk about flooding,” Fowler said, “when it’s a blue sky day, you don’t have shrimp boats smashing along the street, you don’t have to wade through six feet of water, you don’t have people screaming at you about the sewer backup in their basement. That’s the worst time to do your planning.”

Fowler, a Senior Project Manager at the Association of State Floodplain Managers Flood Science Center, said blue sky days are also the worst time to talk about flooding because nobody “gives a damn.”

“This is the time to make those plans,” Fowler said, “when you’re not panicked, you’re not under duress and you can go after funding.”

To facilitate conversations and plan for future East River flooding, the Wisconsin chapter of the environmental advocacy organization The Nature Conservancy (TNC) hosted three separate field tours throughout the end of summer and fall of this year. The tour featured stops along the entirety of the East River watershed—from the edge of Outagamie County to the east side of Green Bay—and invited elected officials, local government employees, environmental agencies and residents to learn about the organization’s collaborative flood resiliency efforts.

East River Resiellance Collective

TNC began the East River Resiellance Collective (ERRC) in July 2020. The project is part of a joint effort led by TNC, Wisconsin Sea Grant, NEW Water and UW-Madison’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. The initial funding for the project was provided by the Fund for Lake Michigan and Wisconsin Coastal Management Program.

East River Community Resilience Fellow Kayla Wandsnider said the project comes at a time when people are continually concerned about flooding.

“There’s been a lot of rain,” Wandsnider said. “There’s been a lot of flooding and people are really ready to start doing things because they’re sick of being flooded.”

Wandsnider said the collective is made up of members from local municipalities such as Green Bay, Allouez, Bellevue, Ledgeview, and Brown and Outagamie counties. She said the goal of the collective and the field tours is to bring focus on collaboration every step of the way when planning for future flood events.

Attendees at a Sept. 21 East River Resilience Collective field tour at the Green Isle Park in Allouez. The Nature Conservancy hosted three separate field tours throughout the end of summer and fall of this year. John McCracken photo

“It’s really valuable for people to be able to hear what everyone else is doing,” Wandsnider said, “and kind of see that everyone’s facing the same issue and not point fingers and that everyone who’s invested in who wants to be at the table can be at the table.”

In addition to the field tours, TNC is conducting self-assessments for municipalities across the East River Watershed, creating a replicable framework and partnering with organizations to learn how residents along the East River are prepared for flooding.

“We’ve developed in the floodplain and so we’ve kind of exacerbated a lot of the issues,” Wandsnider said. “A really big challenge is that Green Bay is still developing, and so we’re really going to be seeing a lot more flooding, I think, and so we have to get ahead of that.”

Wandsnider said a common refrain from municipalities the organization talks to is simple: they are not prepared for large precipitation events.

In March 2019, the city of Green Bay declared an emergency declaration in response to continued flooding along the East River. At a February 2020 virtual ERRC forum, Green Bay Fire Chief David Litton said the disastrous flooding that occurred on the week of March 15, 2019 resulted in 128 searched homes, 148 relocated residents, and 36 houses marked as uninhabitable.

Apart from the recurring flood events, TNC’s interest in the East River stems from the complexity of the tributary. The river empties into the Fox River, which is the main tributary for the Bay of Green Bay. The East River is a 42-mile waterway that cuts through dense urban areas, suburban neighborhoods and rural, agricultural communities.

Protecting downstream communities

Brothers Tom and Bill Vande Wettering see the East River in its infancy. The Riverhead is on their roughly 200-acre farm.

The Vande Wettering Farm is in Greenleaf, right at the edge of Brown and Outagamie Counties. The family has been farming on the property for 150 years and it’s currently a sixth-generation farm.

Since the mid-2000s, the brothers have been actively involved in conservation agriculture. These practices involve using cover crops and rotational cattle grazing to minimize the impact of their farming on the watershed.

The practice of planting cover crops is quite literally in the name. Growers plant crops that cover the soil. The planted crops prevent runoff, erosion and increase biodiva ersity.

Rotational grazing, the practice of actively herding and tracking livestock location when they are feeding as opposed to letting them romp and trot in one compounded area, also helps mitigate erosion and increases the health of the soil.

Why are the Vande Wettering brothers invested in these practices and how does it affect the East River?

Better crop management prevents runoff into the East River. Less runoff means higher water quality for the entire watershed.

At an Aug. 24 ERRC field tour, Tom Vande Wettering said since the implementation of these practices, he has seen far less runoff into the East River, even after heavy rainfall events.

One major change for the land was the restoration of a forest and creek that was previously unwalkable frontage. Since the soil quality on their property has improved and active restoration and conservation efforts, the brothers are now able to use the roughly 45 acres for cattle grazing while also protecting the water quality.

A water quality demonstration on the Vande Wettering Farm shows how cover crops help prevent runoff. Jars on the left side of the display are from soil that does not use cover crops. John McCracken photo

“Before this project the land was unusable,” Vande Wettering said. “Now we use this for cattle.”

The process of protecting the watershed is not simple, Vande Wettering said.

Vande Wettering said any farmer looking to start similar practices to protect the watershed should expect a couple years’ worth of work before seeing any results. He likened the process of applying for funding for similar projects and going against the grain of traditionally, high-impact farming practices to “legal gambling.”

“Don’t do everything the first years,” Vande Wettering said.

Barry Bubolz works directly with farmers like the Vande Wetterings across Northeast Wisconsin. As a coordinator with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Bubolz sees firsthand how implementing changes to soil preservation, preventing runoff and restoring eroded farmland plays a role in flooding and water quality throughout the watershed.

“We’re doing everything we can to protect (farmland) for (farmers’) bottom line,” Bubolz said. “But the bigger story here is also protecting water downstream. So if that’s for the communities downstream, if that’s for the sportsmen that are out on the bay, it all plays a role.”

Heart of the Valley

Moving north along the watershed, a brief stop shows what options exist for producers who are not currently using cover crops and other runoff management practices.

The Heart of the Valley Agricultural Runoff Treatment System (ARTS) is an innocuous pond just outside of a suburban cluster of homes near the Town of Holland. For passersby, the system is likely just like any old stormwater retention pond developments are required to install.

Instead, this system is a vessel to prevent flooding along the watershed. When heavy rainfall occurs, the ARTS collects water from surrounding fields, fills up and is slowly released back into the soil at a safe rate. This process helps slow the release of water back into the soil after large-scale rain events.

The goal is to provide a place for growers and farmers to have a place where their runoff is trapped instead of emptied into the East River. Farmers use drain tiles—an underground pipe system that collects and moves water away from a specific area—to deposit agricultural runoff into the treatment system.

The Heart of the Valley Agricultural Runoff Treatment System collects excess runoff from nearby fields and will release water back into the soil at a monitored rate. This system is at the bottom of the East River watershed and helps prevent runoff and flooding. John McCracken photo

Outagamie County Land Conservation Project Coordinator Jeremy Freund said the system is designed to mitigate future flooding from water that has nowhere to go during and after heavy rainfalls as well as protecting the water quality for the entire watershed.

“I always wanted to make sure that I was thinking of the people downstream when I look at a development,” Freund said. “(It’s) an opportunity to at least make people’s lives not any worse.”

Freund said the next step for the ARTS project is to acquire more funds and place more of these systems along the East River watershed to mitigate runoff and stem rising river levels from heavy rainfall events.

Freund said roughly eight million gallons of water are collected and released each year through the current treatment system. According to the United States Geological Survey, a swimming pool roughly the size of a football field holds about a million gallons of water.

A century of resiliency

When the Green Isle Park in Allouez flooded in 2019, current Village Administrator Brad Lange said everything from the tennis courts to the gazebo was submerged.

“Pretty much the whole park was underwater,” Lange said at a Sept. 21 ERRC field tour.

Lange said Allouez has been attempting to mitigate flooding for around 100 years. Citing municipal planning that went in place in the early 1920s, Lange said every so often the village will purchase more acreage along the banks of the East River to help build a stronger greenway.

“1921 was the first mention of developing the East River parkway,” Lange said.

Lange said the Green Isle Park was purchased in 1953 and in the following decades, the village carried out efforts to expand green space and preserve the river’s shoreline.

In 1974, Allouez purchased 100 acres along the East River. In 2005, Allouez purchased 22 acres of former farmland off of Hoffman Road, along the East River to protect the waterway from future encroaching development.

A view of the East River and the East River Trail as seen from Allouez Ave in Allouez. Multimedia Channels/Josh Staloch photo

“(The purchased 22 acres) was an area that was farmed and has now been turned into a multi-purpose park with a lot of both active and passive recreational opportunities,” Lange said.

Allouez has also planted thousands of seedling trees in Wiese Park to control runoff into the East River as well as build a stronger shoreline. More recently, Allouez completed a joint initiative with Bethel Baptist Church (1601 Libal St) to build a one-acre stormwater pond to help with runoff into the nearby East River from the church’s property. The pond also features native plants and grasses.

These continued improvements to the East River parkway are all a part of Allouez’s comprehensive plans, which Lange said has continually grown to help the waterway.

“The goal, from the village standpoint, in utilizing the East River parkway plan was to have a continuous park from the south end to the north end,” Lange said.

Village of Allouez Director of Planning and Community Development Trevor Fuller said the village’s predecessors had the knowledge and foresight to start purchasing properties along the East River.

“We still have about 600 properties in the floodplain,” Fuller said. “That’s public and private properties totaling around $21 million in value.”

Fuller said the goal of the village is preservation and protecting current properties in the floodplain as roughly 97% of the village’s floodplain is developed.

‘An ongoing challenge’

While Allouez is looking at preserving parcels along the waterway, the neighboring Town of Rockland is juggling growth and future development.

The roughly 1,000 person town is bordered by the Fox River while the East River zigs and zags throughout the rural community.

Town of Rockland Planning Commission Member Dave Stubenvoll said the municipality has tremendous problems with runoff.

“We are a lot of rock, a lot of clay and a couple veins of sugar sand,” Stubenvoll said at the Sept. 21 ERRC field tour.

Stubenvoll said this patchwork of impervious soil creates “gobs” of water whenever heavy rainfall events occur. He said whenever new developments come through the planning process, water impact studies are at the forefront of his mind.

“It’s an ongoing challenge,” Stubenvoll said. “Every new home, every new road, every new subdivision has to get looked at.”

Town of Rockland Clerk Julie Koening. John McCracken photo

Rockland Town Clerk Julie Koenig said a handful of residents who currently live along the East River use methods such as planting native prairie grasses as well as constructing rain gardens and barrels. She also said the town encourages agricultural users to use low-till methods to prevent disturbances to the soil and future erosion.

Additionally, Koenig said Rockland uses conventional water sluices to direct water in the correct direction—despite the element’s pesky nature.

“We all know water does what it wants to do and not what we want it to do,” Koenig said.

Koenig said for any of the new developments coming to the town, flooding is at the forefront.

“The first thing that we asked about is ‘Where’s that water going to go.’” Koenig said.

Koenig said when approached with new developments, Rockland looks at what direction the water flows from the development, where it is coming from, where water leaves from if it crosses the property and how much water flow is likely to be created by the impact of the development.

“It’s not just us being quote-unquote the bad guy,” Koenig said. “It’s the county and us saying let’s work together and try to figure out a way for you to accomplish your goals but still keep the impact as low as possible.”

Preparing for future floods

City of Green Bay Resiliency Coordinator Melissa Schmitz addressed a multidisciplinary group of attendees at the Oct. 19 ERRC field tour. To illustrate recent flooding impacts, the group—standing at the corner of Cass and Hartung Streets—looked up and down the streets to see a swath of single-family homes and apartment complexes.

Schmitz said the entire area was inundated with water.

Since major flooding in 2019 and 2020, Schmitz said Green Bay has attempted to coordinate with homeowners looking to sell their flooded property. The city would then convert the property back into open, green spaces through a process known as voluntary land acquisition.

The problem with shoring up previously submerged properties is the region’s continually hot real estate market.

“One of the challenges we’ve learned is that properties turn over very quickly in some areas,” Schmitz said. “So those homeowners and property owners that were interested at that time are not here anymore.”

Dan Fowler said in his experience, the process of acquiring flooded properties through voluntary land acquisition or funding with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding is a matter of time.

“A homeowner whose house has been rocked by a flood is not going to wait three years until you can come up with that (funding),” Fowler said.

The East River provides recreational opportunities such as canoeing, fishing and biking along the East River Trail. Residents can be seen canoeing at Green Isle Park in Allouez. John McCracken photo

Fowler said municipalities looking to purchase recently flooded properties should both strike while the iron is hot and expect to wait years for FEMA funding to come through.

“It is a painful, long process to use FEMA money to buy your houses,” Fowler said. “I’m not saying don’t go there, because you need to get that money, it’s very valuable, but it takes forever.”

Apart from the long process to purchase flooded properties along the East River, Schmitz said Green Bay is working on more immediate programs to benefit residents along numerous waterways in the city.

“We’re looking at implementing green infrastructure programs in 2022 for residential and business (districts),” Schmitz said. “That will be city-wide, whether you’re in the Fox River corridor, the East River corridor or Baird Creek.”

The United States Environmental Protection Agency describes green infrastructure as stormwater management that “filters and absorbs stormwater where it falls.” Green infrastructure comes in the form of rain barrels, rain gardens, planter boxes, permeable pavements and tree planting.

Flooding at a business complex on St. George Street near Main Street in Green Bay, spring 2020. Photo courtesy of Julia Noordyk/UW Sea Grant Institute

Recently, Green Bay issued a survey to Joannes Park and East River residents to understand how prepared local residents are for future flooding. The survey is facilitated by the city in partnership with NeighborWorks Green Bay, Brown County United Way, The Nature Conservancy and Wello.

“It’s about in the event of a disaster or flood, who could you turn to in your neighborhood,” Schmitz said. “So we’re trying to look at it from a holistic standpoint.”

Schmitz said a large part of her position is community outreach and educating elected officials about the importance of flood planning. She said as the Green Bay community gets away from the floods of 2019 and 2020, people tend to forget about the impact as well as past calls to action from officials to look for solutions.

“The further we get away from that event, the memories fade,” Schimtz said.

Schmitz said Green Bay is currently working on a climate and resilience plan. Her goals in the coming year are to continue finding ways to educate residents on the things, big and small, they can do to be prepared for future flooding.

Both Schmitz and Fowler said their efforts to educate and prepare residents and municipalities are not permanent solutions as floods are natural events and a part of Green Bay’s, and Wisconsin’s, future.

Schmitz said the purpose of resiliency and working collaboratively is to be prepared for what communities know is coming.

“A huge part of it is going to be educating people on what green infrastructure can do to help—not cure—the problem of flooding,” Schmitz said.

John McCracken is the Editor of Green Bay City Pages. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @jmcjmc451.

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