At first glance, you might think Fitchburg resident Tom Thayer has a lakefront property.
He never intended for that to be.
When he purchased his home in 1985, Lake Barney was a couple hundred yards away, and there was a sprinkling of small ponds south of his home.
“We had two ponds on our property, and this at one point was all wooded,” he said, pointing past a flood barrier in his backyard to a handful of dead trees enveloped by water.
Now, Lake Barney, a glacial kettle that at the time spanned 30 acres, has expanded to 800 acres and encroaches on Thayer’s home to the south and west. Its growth has encapsulated smaller lakes all the way to County Hwy. D, more than a mile to the west.
Thayer’s predicament is part of a larger, multifaceted problem. Heavy rain patterns late last summer and a large snow melt this spring, combined with a bike path owned by the Village of Oregon that reduced ground water’s natural flow, have put the underground water table under pressure and caused Lake Barney to swell.
Now, homes, wildlife and farm fields all are in jeopardy.
And there’s no easy fix.
For one thing, seven governmental entities would be directly affected by any solution to the problem. Water flows from the City of Fitchburg to the town and village of Oregon, and any solutions might require use of state and federal land.
And the water has to go somewhere. Simply fixing the problem around Lake Barney could cause flooding elsewhere, including in the Badfish Creek, which has had its share of flooding issues over the past decade.
Limited, sometimes temporary, fixes have had to come from affected property owners, and often at a hefty cost.
Thayer spent $40,000 last October for 800 feet of large blue flood barriers that line his backyard to the south and west in an attempt to keep the water at bay.
His neighbor across the street, John Freiburger, had standing water in his yard during the spring and is paying out of pocket to take down almost two dozen 300-year-old trees.
A mile to the southwest, Jerry Schmelzer is constantly running sump pumps to keep water out of a basement that never experienced flooding in decades prior.
John Brown battled the rising water table on his Town of Oregon property last fall and nearly lost – spending thousands of dollars to fill in half of his basement in order to save his home.
In addition to out of pocket costs, property owners have lost income.
In some cases, crops planted during last year’s harvest couldn’t be taken out of the field last fall because of wet conditions, and a percentage of land wasn’t usable this year because fields had standing water in them.
Freiburger went to the city and had his property valuation reduced after it was determined that almost a quarter of his farm land was unable to be rented out for crops.
“I’ve got land that I can’t use,” he said.
The heavy rains and rising water table are also changing the landscape of the area. Claudia Guy, City of Fitchburg environmental engineer, said the Madison area hasn’t seen an annual rainfall this high since the 1950s.
Coincidentally, she told the Star in an email, that’s the last time Lake Barney overflowed.
The only way the lake can drain is through evaporation and infiltration, she said, and with a water table that high, it’s difficult for water to drain away into the soil.
The groundwater was rated by the U.S. Geological Survey as “high” in March of this year, and in the last five months, it has only decreased in rank to “much above normal,” meaning the water table is still sitting in the “greater than 90th percentile” range, Guy said.
That’s resulted in a shift in wildlife and vegetation in the area.
Thayer told the Star on Aug. 5 he used to see four pairs of cranes in what used to be farm fields, but it’s since dwindled to a sole pair. Trees are also dying, as oxygen is being cut off to the root systems and the plants are basically being drowned.
An emergency solution would involve clearing out the outflow. That could drop the water level by a few feet but would still leave homeowners at risk in the case of another heavy rain, Thayer said.
A more permanent solution could involve a controlled system, Fitchburg Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee chair Ed Kinney said. Water could be released through the Village of Oregon at a limited rate as a way to minimize flooding events, and the land surrounding Lake Barney could operate as a large detention area.
But, Kinney added, even an emergency solution might take years to implement because it would have the excess stormwater being sent over land owned by the state Department of Corrections and would involve the DNR. And any proposed long-term fix would need the approval of all of the governmental entities involved.
“There is a possibility that’s there’s just flat-out not a solution,” Kinney said.
‘A plain disaster’
Water has caused headaches for Brown before.
The federal government purchased his land near the Kickapoo River alongside 140 other farms decades earlier, he said, for construction of the La Farge Dam. That was done to control flooding in that river valley.
After moving to Oregon 20 years ago, the now 79-year-old isn’t interested in moving again. And when the flooding got bad last October, he didn’t think his home would sell anyway, given the condition the rising water table left it in.
So he sunk $20,000 into repairs to keep the house livable.
“It was just a plain disaster,” Brown said. “I’ve never been through anything like it in my life.”
Until last year, his 1860s-era home on County Hwy. D just south of County Hwy. M had no water issues, perhaps because of precautions he took to seal the perimeter of his home when he moved in.
But the water table on his property began rising from the Lake Barney overflow and a lack of drainage routes for heavy rainfalls.
He had two sump pumps running constantly in his then-8 foot tall basement, Brown said, but it wasn’t helping much.
“All you’re doing is recirculating the water,” Brown said. “You’re pumping it out, and it goes over in the pond, and then the water table stays the same and it’s just coming right back in. All you’re doing is going in a circle.”
So he and a friend laid down a foot of hydraulic cement by hand.
And when water continued to seep up through the floor, Brown added 32 inches of stone, two layers of plastic water barriers and four inches of fiber concrete.
He had to move most of the utilities to the first floor. That meant creating a large closet in one of the bedrooms – Brown’s wife wasn’t in favor turning the entire room into a utility space – and cramming the water heater, softener, brine tank, plumbing and a stacked washer and dryer into it.
The only utilities that were spared was the electric system and the furnace, which hangs from the ceiling of the basement.
“At night, I wouldn’t sleep good until I got all the utilities moved up,” Brown said. “I mean, I lost weight. I wanted to go on a diet, but that’s not the kind of diet you want to go on.”
Now, the only way to move around in Brown’s basement-turned-crawl space is on red rolling work stools that sit near the bottom of the stairs, which had to be cut off when the feet of concrete were added. At the bottom of the stairs, a red notebook hangs from a nail in a wooden post, where every day, Brown records the height of the water table.
He specifically noted July 3 of this year – on that day, the water table was 28 inches high. Nearly a month later, on Friday, Aug. 2, he showed it had decreased to 11 inches.
“Even if you drained this dry, it could take two to 10 years to bring the water table back down,” Brown said. “I know what the cure is – you’ve got to get rid of the water. And then it’s going to take time.”
Schmelzer, Brown’s neighbor to the north just over the City of Fitchburg border, said he, too, has spent at least an hour each day redirecting water out of his basement.
Because the water table is higher than his basement floor, he’s seen as much as two feet of standing water, Schmelzer said.
“We haven’t had a day with a dry basement since October,” he said. “My furnace was halfway under water, and the water heater’s gone now – I have a suspended tankless water heater on the wall now.”
The cost of repairs and running sump pumps for months has added up to more than $4,000, he said. But he said the larger cost is time spent working on it.
“It’s just (laborious) and time-consuming, having to deal with it all,” Schmelzer said. “It’s not like I can throw $4,000 at it and it’s OK. That’s not the way it is.”
As you walk around Thayer’s backyard, the sound of pumps is constant.
Some of Thayer’s pumps are on sensors and start up when high water levels are sensed. Others on Thayer’s property that are in lower spots are running constantly.
“Right now, they’re doing their job keeping the water out, but we’ve got to pump the rainwater that occurs back out over the barrier,” he said. “They work well, but I’d love to get rid of them.
“I don’t want to look at the electrical bill,” Thayer added.
A changing landscape
Freiburger has 21 hickory trees on his County Hwy. M property that date back before the Revolutionary War.
But they have died after getting their roots drowned by the rising water table. That means he’ll need to get them professionally taken down, at an estimated cost of $20,000.
“The loss of the trees is pretty disheartening,” Freiburger said. “Especially these pre-settlement burr oaks. They’ve seen just about everything … it’s sad to see these things go.”
The habitat around Thayer’s property has completely changed in the past couple of years, he said.
At one time, farmland to the west of his yard housed multiple pairs of cranes, deer, turkeys and other woodland creatures. In the four years prior to it being flooded out, the field was home to a hay crop.
“We’ve got a lot of geese now,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been interesting to watch the ecology of this area change because of it.”
Some of the changes he’s seen have almost been comical, Thayer said.
Before the flood barriers were put up last fall, he explained, there was a hatching of minnows that happened to find its way onto his property and began to clog up the pumps.
“In mid-March, we had some bigger pumps out here – that took care of the fish; they all got pumped,” he said.
As the water runs out of places to go on his property, Thayer said, it moves north across Hwy. M to Freiburger’s and other neighbor’s properties, filling the ditches and fields in the process. As he pulled into his driveway on Aug. 5, Thayer said, it was the first time he hadn’t seen water sitting in the ditch in eight months.
And while the water table has decreased since its peak in spring, Freiburger still has some fields that have seen little to no improvement and still have standing water in them.
He has around 250 acres out of 1,035 that were unplantable this year as a result.
“It’s a loss of income for rural people,” Freiburger said.
No easy solution
Any solution to the problem would require the cooperation of multiple municipalities and likely would involve state and federal agencies.
The City of Fitchburg and Village of Oregon are both exploring solutions.
A draft of Fitchburg’s 2020-29 capital improvement plan recommends spending $60,000 next year to study Lake Barney and determine what options could get approval from the DNR and village and town of Oregon.
Because the flooding doesn’t affect city property, the CIP narrative states, the city would normally treat it as a private property concern in which individual landowners would be responsible. But overwhelming public interest to have the city involved in lowering water levels led officials to reconsider that stance.
Under the CIP timeline, which is only a guideline for planning future budgets and not a commitment, any project construction for storm sewers wouldn’t be until 2024, and only after it works with the DNR to ensure downstream communities wouldn’t be harmed.
The Village of Oregon is rerouting the Rotary Bike Trail to an area with higher elevation, public works director Jeff Rau said.
He said the village has already had a difficult time moving water from the business park through the Lerner Conservation Park area and to drain into the Oregon branch of the Badfish Creek. That means any type of solution for the flooding near Lake Barney would require storm sewer improvements to be made within the village, he added.
The village is committed to working with Fitchburg to find a long-term solution that minimizes future impacts, Rau said.
“(We want to make) sure we’re not harming anyone downstream, because you don’t want to force your problem onto someone else,” he said.
The situation gets more complex with U.S. Fish and Wildlife land abutting Thayer’s property, which is managed by the DNR, and the Oregon Correctional Center owning land to the north and south of County Hwy. M.
Any projects through the land would be subject to approval from state and federal agencies.
Earlier this summer, Guy organized a meeting with local, county and state governmental entities and property owners in the area, Ald. Janell Rice (Dist. 4) said. A member of Ag and Rural Affairs, Rice said both emergency and long-term solutions are being considered.
“Somewhere along the way, some entity is going to have to make a sacrifice,” she said. “I certainly don’t want it to be the homeowner.”