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A river runs through it … literally

By Ann Knoedler

I can imagine how idyllic it must be to live on the shores of a pretty river, but sometimes Mother Nature can be a tough neighbor.

The streets of Steuben are swamped after flood waters crested along the Kickapoo River in Crawford County on August 20, 2007. The same flood also caused the evacuation of most of the town of Gays Mills in Crawford County. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Gary Porter)

The streets of Steuben are swamped after flood waters crested along the Kickapoo River in Crawford County on August 20, 2007. The same flood also caused the evacuation of most of the town of Gays Mills in Crawford County. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Gary Porter)

Several southwest and southeast Wisconsin communities found this out the hard way and made the decision to resolve their flooding problems in dramatic fashion: they are either in the process of moving to dryer ground or have already done so.

Soldiers Grove (population about 600) on the Kickapoo River in Crawford County completed its relocation project in 1983. Plagued by floods since 1907, the community finally took the bull by the horns in 1978 and moved 36 businesses, three municipal facilities and 22 homes uphill.

An interesting tidbit I uncovered regarding this major move shows the village planners to have been visionaries. They included solar heating in their new buildings. The village is now considered “America’s First Solar Village.”

Gays Mills (also population about 600), just a few miles southwest of Soldiers Grove and also on the Kickapoo, has decided they’ve had enough with the rising river and will be moving homes, a business district and its village hall/library/chamber of commerce to higher ground. They’re just starting, however, with financial assistance starting to trickle in.

With this opportunity to start over, perhaps some forward-thinking design will be incorporated into their buildings as well.

For both communities, the decision to move everything lock, stock and barrel did not happen quickly. Initially, studies were done to see if they could “control” the river so that the communities could stay put. But, the river, rain and cost eventually convinced them otherwise.

On a relatively smaller relocation scale, there’s the town of Spring Green in Sauk County near the Wisconsin River. Twenty-eight houses, not the whole community, are included in a buyout/relocation program. The demolition/removal contracts were awarded in November 2009 to Bob Ewers, Lone Rock, and in February 2010 to Heritage Movers, Albany.

Unlike Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills, an overflowing river was not the culprit here. Rain was pooling in a low area with a high water table at the base of a bluff in a subdivision; the water had nowhere to go because there was no culvert to divert it to the Wisconsin River.

In southeast Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District recently completed an approximately six-year flood mitigation program in the city of Wauwatosa that involved clearing by demolition/removal of at least 45 homes and businesses along the Menomonee River at Hart Park.

And, in Milwaukee, MMSD is beginning the same process involving 82 homes between South Sixth Street and South 16th Street along the Kinnickinnic River. But this time, they’re trying something new –- salvage and deconstruct.

It will take five years to complete — no small thing. It’s an expensive proposition for each community and it’s traumatic for the people being uprooted. But, if it can be accomplished, I say do it. Why continue to live with the muck and mold and destruction of frequent flooding?

A person should be able to sleep peacefully when it rains.

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