From Coon Valley Soil Conservation to the Present: Flood Resilience in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin

Authors: Margot Higgins*,
Topics: Rural Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Environment
Keywords: climate disaster, flooding, resilience, cooperative management,
Session Type: Lightning Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 1935, Aldo Leopold wrote that rain pours off the Coon Valley ridges as from a roof. That year one of the highest floods on record at the time tore through the Driftless Region of Southwestern Wisconsin. Due to efforts of cooperative conservation since the 1930’s, the flow of water usually percolates into the soil rather than flowing like a deluge – until recently. Though floods are an inherent part of the Driftless landscape, today flooding records are broken almost every year. Over the last decade, the Driftless Region has experienced five so-called “100-year” floods resulting from unusually heavy, sustained rains. The most recent flood, in August 2018, was the worst on record. Dams were compromised and residents evacuated. Rivers rose above historical marks by more than two feet. Homes, and businesses were condemned or abandoned. Farmers lost crops and acreage as topsoil washed downstream. People became ill from the polluted waters that ran through their yards. Vernon and Crawford Counties, where most of the devastation occurred, are sparsely populated and among the poorest counties in the state. Similar to most rural areas of the Midwest, the Driftless Region has experienced land fragmentation, the loss of small farms, and agricultural decline. But unlike other disaster-ridden parts of the Midwest, the Driftless has a deeply rooted history of cooperative management. I examine social and community resilience – the ability of Driftless communities to tolerate, absorb, adjust, and plan for future flooding events – in the context of this robust history.

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