La Crosse flood solutions: As 100-year rains become frequent, communities prioritize flood mitigation

Concrete culvert along Pammel Creek saves La Crosse residents from flash flooding

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Flooding has become a common problem for many Western Wisconsin communities. La Crosse leaders have sought solutions since the 1960s.

One structure saves city residents from flash flooding on a routine basis. Flood mitigation strategies are nothing new. Back in the 1990s The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city of La Crosse created a concrete culvert structure to divert floodwater.

After La Crosse’s wettest day on record Saturday, the water was almost to the top of that concrete structure. Mitigation strategies like this are becoming common practice as these 50-year rains are becoming an annual occurrence.

La Crosse’s record daily rainfall on Saturday highlights a problem that is no longer a once in a hundred-year phenomenon. Flood mitigation is an old conversation. Just step into the La Crosse Public Library archives and you’ll find stacks of papers dating back to 1967.

“We’ve been investigating things in La Crosse for decades,” said Terry Zien, U.S. Corps of Army Engineers flood mitigation expert. The structure that was built is what we call gray infrastructure or hard infrastructure.”

Zien remembers how La Crosse solved one flooding problem in the 1990s.

“We’re still looking at other ways to reduce the flood risk for other parts of town,” Zien said.

La Crosse is in a spot where flooding is inevitable. Due where it rests next to the Mississippi and coulees where water runs right into town.

“We look for opportunities to reduce the flood risk rather than modifying the flood itself,” he said.

One of those solutions Zien talked is constructing new buildings higher, so when the water reaches a certain point it won’t reach the building’s foundation.

Zien said they focus on finding flood water’s path of least resistance. Storms are producing major floods every few years. It’s placing more urgency on community leaders to solve floodplain issues.

“I think the communities are starting to realize that they all better start looking at this with more concern now,” Zien said.

Zien says it’s good for communities to have solid flood plain ordinances. These ordinances help communities understand the risks so they can solve flood issues before they happen.