Planning to Protect Community Assets

By Carolyn Rumery Betz

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but it poses a growing list of challenges at the local level. Helping municipalities adapt to climate change is the focus of WICCI's Community Adaptation Working Group, directed by DNR's Land Use Team Leader, Sally Kefer.

Kefer has crossed the state over the past few years to help communities plan for climate change. She and other WICCI members have been to Eau Claire, Madison, River Falls and La Crosse, and they have participated in federally sponsored workshops in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Duluth/Superior.

WICCI climate models project that Wisconsin will experience increasing temperatures along with more frequent and intense rain events.

Heat waves can be deadly_JacksonPhoto

Storms that drop two or three inches in a 24-hour period occur today about 12 times per decade in southern Wisconsin, and seven times per decade in northern Wisconsin. By mid-century, these are likely to occur about 25 percent more frequently and increase slightly in intensity.

The frequency of very hot days (over 90°F) will likely double, from roughly 12 per year to 25. Planning ahead for these changes can help communities become more resilient.

"I want to show communities that they can help themselves to successfully handle the effects of extreme events," says Kefer. "They need to protect both public health and community infrastructure."

Teaming up with the Department of Health Services, Kefer landed a grant to help La Crosse identify areas of vulnerability, including health-related challenges and other issues that result from flooding, extreme heat, and increased runoff from adjacent agricultural lands.

La Crosse, a city of 51,000, then received a federal grant to address some of these issues by developing plans for and installing "green infrastructure" in an older, flood-prone residential area. Excess water coming from intense rain events will be directed into grass swales or curbside gardens, where it can soak into the ground instead of flowing over hard street surfaces, causing flooding.

"Cities can easily amend some of their existing community plans and budget decisions to deal with our changing climate," says Kefer. "Most communities already have sustainability, emergency management, forestry, and utility and engineering plans that can be amended to help plan for what we envision is coming: more flooding, higher temperatures, and more freezing and thawing, which can affect driving conditions and infrastructure."

Workshop to identify vulnerabilities_KeferPhoto

La Crosse County and the Mississippi River Regional Planning Commission will address these issues through an "All Hazards Mitigation Plan."

"By using green infrastructure, we can do some things to address the increased runoff without a great deal of added expense," says assistant city engineer Bernard Lenz. Source controls can be added during routine street construction and save the city money in the long run. La Crosse officials are aware that they must develop strategies to protect their most vulnerable citizens, the elderly and economically disadvantaged. High on the list is the need for cooling centers and modes of transportation that can bring those without air-conditioning to places where they can find safe shelter from heat waves. The La Crosse County Health Department is working on the issue.

As La Crosse continues to incorporate climate adaptation into community plans and action, other communities are beginning to identify their own areas of vulnerability. Erosion from stormwater, flooded buildings and highways, excessive gullies and collapsing slopes are examples of stresses that can compromise a city's health and ability to function.