Protected Floodplains, Protected Communities

The 2008 Midwest floods are still fresh in many minds, especially those communities directly impacted. The communities affected have hard decisions to make, decisions about how to prepare for the next big flood, how to protect themselves from it and how to move on.

One such community is Gays Mills, Wisconsin, which is nestled in the floodplain of the Kickapoo River. This community of roughly 600 people was swallowed by not only the 2008 flood, but also the 2007 flood. Both were record 500-year floods and both took a financial and emotional toll on the community. While occasional and sometimes major flash flooding occurred in the past, the community had never experienced floods of this magnitude. The 2007 flood left 75 homes damaged as a tide of four-foot high waters swept through the village. In 2008, 90% of the town flooded and caused substantial damage to 175 homes and businesses in the community. Four months after the most recent flood, 120 people, or one-fifth of the village’s population, had moved out, leaving 45 homes vacant. 

Although flooding had become a way of life for those who call Gays Mills home, the 2007 and 2008 floods proved how powerful and destructive the river can be to the community. Floods are natural, reoccurring events and floodplains are natural geomorphological features which reconnect to the river during floods to store and transport excess water. Therefore, floods cause more damage when their floodplains are developed than when left in a natural state. After over 150 years, Gays Mills now recognizes the dangers of its location and has chosen to change the direction of its future. In November of 2008, the Village Board adopted voluntary partial relocation plans as prepared by FEMA. Detailed planning is underway as is the search for funding.

With shifts in climate bringing more precipitation and more intense and frequent storms, rivers will demand access to their floodplains. As high flows get higher, it is now wiser than ever to protect undeveloped floodplains and restore developed floodplains. Relocation is just one method to restoring floodplains, proper floodplain zoning is another. Besides protecting communities from the dangers of flooding, protecting and restoring the floodplain can help the river naturally adapt to changes in the precipitation.