By Tom Still

MADISON – As the flood waters of June begin to recede, the question being asked across much of Wisconsin and parts of the Midwest is simple enough: What can we do to prevent a “next time” – or, at least, make the next time less catastrophic?

The answer lies within private land conservation efforts, some of which are already taking place in Wisconsin and others that are being encouraged through federal programs that put more decisions – and incentives – in the hands of farmers and other landowners.

The Madison-based Sand County Foundation, which maintains the Leopold Memorial Reserve in Sauk County, has been working with landowners for years. The foundation draws its core philosophy from the teachings of Aldo Leopold, the conservationist who wrote “A Sand County Almanac” and whose own Wisconsin River getaway is included in the 1,900 acres of the private reserve.

Aerial photographs of the flooding along the Baraboo and Wisconsin rivers reveal an instructive story about the reserve and the work of nearby landowners. The clear blue waters in and around the reserve stand in stark contrast to the muddy mess overflowing the floodplains only a few miles away.

“The flooding on the Baraboo River was worse than it needed be, lasted longer than it needed, and was precipitated by an unsafe sand dike levee that blocked the Baraboo’s ability to flow into the Wisconsin, and thereby alleviate the flood,” said Brent Haglund, president of the foundation. “We now have an opportunity that is enormous: To take steps to improve private land management, and to help deliver benefits not only to the land owners themselves, but to the public.”

Haglund is a Ph.D. ecologist and advocate of using private markets to accomplish what top-down government mandates often cannot. Independent research at the UW-Madison and beyond has demonstrated that landowners who provide habitat on their floodplain properties produce a more prolific and diverse wildlife community.  That’s good for them. But responsible land use decisions also benefit neighbors and the community in these ways:

-    Safety is enhanced, lessening the chance of a catastrophic levee or dam break.
-    Flood crests are diminished elsewhere in the watershed.
-    Emergency services are reduced, saving taxpayer dollars; and
-    Clean-ups will be quicker and less costly.

When high water flows unimpeded into floodplains, it also helps the local ecology. Groundwater is recharged. Native fish spawn and feed more naturally and freely. Native plant species that require occasional high-water “spurts” will grow more vigorously. Floodplains, with proper habitats, can even do an effective job in removing harmful bacteria from sewage plant discharges.

“A wetland floodplain as narrow as 100 feet can get rid of enormous portions of e.Coli bacteria,” Haglund said. “You have to have the right vegetation to do so, but even small wetlands can take away a lot of the bacteria.”

Water quality is also improved when floodplains deposit silt-laden sediment and remove nitrogen fertilizer compounds. That has huge implications downstream for the so-called “hypoxic zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. As a record-breaking volume of floodwater laden with sewage and fertilizers rolls down the waterways of the Mississippi Basin towards the Gulf, researchers say this year’s dead zone may be the largest ever recorded.

The place to stem the flow of oxygen-depriving nutrients, Haglund believes, is close to the source. That’s why the Sand County Foundation’s floodplains program builds partnerships that produce scientifically sound and voluntary approaches to removing inappropriate and unsafe structures that impede river floodplain function.
Some programs managed by the federal Department of Agriculture can help, he added. The Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Cooperative Conservation and Conservation Stewardship programs all encourage farmers and other landowners to take steps on their own.
“We must continue to develop meaningful incentives for private landowners to choose land uses that keep floodplain hydrologic functions generally intact,” Haglund said.

That approach can produce better water quality, savings for taxpayers and healthier farms while building natural buffers against the next flood. The rains will always come, but they need not wash us away.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He and Haglund are co-authors of “Hands-On Enviromentalism,” published by Encounter Books in New York.