Jefferson Street flooding

Some Jefferson Street homeowners have experienced water issues in their yards and basements, some feel influenced by the overflowing Oregon branch of the Badfish Creek.

Around 20 Jefferson Street homeowners have complained in public meetings over the past few months about water issues plaguing their yards and basements, and the Village of Oregon has been working to come up with a solution.

Village officials turned to members of the Dane County Drainage District for guidance, and while they disagreed with homeowners this spring about the cause of the flooding and jurisdiction over the land that is legally complicated, they are poised to take some action.

At one of the public meetings, May 29, drainage board representatives discussed the possible next steps for how to handle the overflowing Oregon branch of the Badfish Creek.

While some homeowners said they feel the flooding is caused by that portion of the creek, public works director Jeff Rau said he and members of the Drainage Board feel the issue is high groundwater levels and the unprecedented rain that has hit the area over the past few years.

Rau, drainage district representatives and village engineers walked through the affected area last month and discussed a plan to dredge the creek from the railroad tracks to Keller Alpine Park, removing some of the silt and sediment to allow the water to drain more easily. Drainage district board members suggested the plan would be a temporary solution, and the Village Board is set to discuss the plan at an upcoming meeting, as soon as Aug. 5.

“That would kind of create a more uniform section through there so it’s more efficient for carrying water out of there,” Rau said. “I don’t think it’s going to solve all of the problems, but I think it would definitely help.”

The village owns the property where homeowners believe the flooding is originating, but the authority for any infrastructure work to be conducted in that area is with the Badfish First Addition Drainage District, meaning anything more significant than dredging would need approval of a body that has been inactive since the early 1900s.

“This has been a very interesting, frustrating, time-consuming situation, and there’s been a lot of confusion surrounding it,” Rau said.

Legal complications

Any potential solution is complicated by the legal authority given to the drainage district that encompasses the Jefferson Street area, known as the “First Addition.”

A drainage district is an area governed by a local government entity with the primary purpose of ensuring land is clear of water for agriculture.

The district must authorize any work beyond the dredging, which would require surveys and assessments to determine what exactly is causing the flooding issues. It would need to assess who would benefit from the work, as homeowners all would share in the cost, which could be thousands of dollars each.

“If the drainage district goes to do further projects, like drain tiles or any kind of more substantial projects, that would cost a significant amount of money,” Rau said. “I believe a lot of people don’t even realize they are in the drainage district.”

While the conversation between who is responsible, who would pay for the costs and who needs to take the first step have swirled for months and even goes back to 2018, homeowners have expressed frustration about how long the process is taking to just get started.

“I’m not hearing any urgency here,” homeowner Roy Spach said during the May 29 utilities meeting. “Every day, I’m pumping between 6,000 and 7,000 gallons of water out of my basement. I can’t wait two years for a fix, something has to be done.”

But Rau said even determining what needs to be done is not easy given the historic precipitation levels the past two years.

“The whole drainage area there has been literally inundated with water it has not seen in decades, everything from basically Cusick Parkway and all the way into Lerner Park and through Badfish Creek have literally never seen this amount of water, probably since the late 1800s,” he said.

Difficult solutions

Some homeowners have taken it upon themselves to finance solutions for their properties, and if the district is activated to do more work beyond the dredging, the others affected could have to follow suit and help pay for a fix.

Rau said some owners have installed drain tiles and extra pumps to take care of the water.

“I think that’s a great start, because that’s taking some personal responsibility for their property,” Rau said. “It’s a challenging problem, and there isn’t an easy fix to it.”

He noted that the drainage district doesn’t have money to put into projects, and even if the village would financially support the dredging project, any future projects likely would need to be paid by the district and the homeowners who live in it.

“The group of residents who are pushing this will have to determine if they are willing to financially get that ball rolling, and that’s a difficult decision,” Rau said.

To activate the district, representatives would need to go down the original documents and tie titles to land parcels to determine each one’s current owner, because 100 years ago, the parcels weren’t subdivided like they are now.

“Maybe it was somebody’s farm and now there are 40 homes along that parcel, so you have to determine who those 40 homeowners are, and that takes time and money for somebody to do something like that,” Rau said.