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Beyond Sandbags

On the anniversary of the catastrophic floods of 2018, the Academy hosted a leadership gathering in Baraboo. Our common goal was to explore better ways to anticipate and prevent damage caused by flooding as the Upper Midwest continues to experience more intense and extreme storms. As one of our presenters noted: We all live in a floodplain. Some of us just have more apparent risks than others, but we’re all vulnerable.

Our group of forty or so people included leaders from many fields: climate science, floodplain and watershed management, municipal water treatment, water policy, emergency management, energy planning, public health, and community action. We also welcomed historians and storytellers, concerned citizens working on flood recovery, and a venture capitalist investing in community resilience. 

As we spent the day exploring ideas, I found an old Margaret Mead quote noodling around in my mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Early in our discussions, it became clear that any plan to deal with climate change-fueled flooding needs to embrace the concept of watershed planning, rather than traditional planning. Plans need to evolve and anticipate the impacts of a changing climate to help us live with water in a new era. Successful “whole watershed” planning approaches in the greater Milwaukee area and Ontario offer potential models for Wisconsin.

Our many participants from smaller communities around the state also made the compelling case that we need to stop starving local governments and constraining their ability to address unique local needs.

Rural resilience in the face of climate-related threats came up again and again during the afternoon discussion. For instance, emergency responders in rural communities affected by massive flooding are often volunteers with limited resources. Local emergency planners may have multiple other job assignments and similar resource constraints. Most small communities lack the funding to recover from a flooding disaster, let alone to pay for preventative measures that can reduce risk and vulnerability.

The group also noted how a strong rural ethic of hard work and self reliance can sometimes get in the way of individuals asking for help. This same ethic, coupled with a distrust of government, can make watershed planning and regional cooperation really challenging. Our discussions about supporting rural resilience pointed to the need for a culture shift that begins with listening, valuing local expertise, funding 4-H programs and schools, and offering assistance when asked—much more than short-term disaster relief in a crisis.

Over the day we affirmed what the scientists have been saying for a while: extreme storms in our region have been on the rise over the past fifteen years, and the trend will continue. The flooding we are experiencing isn’t just from swollen rivers or lakes; it’s also from the intense inundation of places where the storm water simply has nowhere to go but into basements and low-lying areas. 

I watched people lean in and listen to each other and offer respectful critiques and challenges that broadened the conversation. There were divergent points but also many areas of agreement. We were talking about climate change, we were emphasizing community well-being and social values, and we were hopeful. This, I thought, is what collaboration looks like. Maybe forty thoughtful, committed people can change Wisconsin’s future for the better. 

I think, perhaps, they already have.  

 

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Jane Elder is executive director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brings to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts. Her career has focused on environmental policy and communications, while personal interests include theater, modern dance and painting.

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