A Century-Old Bad Idea
As I drove past the O'Donnell Park parking structure (where a falling facade panel killed a teenage boy) and past the Hoan Bridge (where nets are keeping pieces of the deck from pummeling anyone on the Summerfest grounds) and onto the Marquette Interchange (where an ill-designed ramp remains closed and is being redone) with the County Courthouse on the horizon (where cornice pieces fell to the sidewalk this spring), I was hearing the latest radio reports about a faltering levee near Portage that's allowing the nearby Wisconsin River to seep into the Columbia County town. By then, I'd made it to the Zoo Interchange (where emergency closures were needed to keep motorists from plunging to their potential deaths on at least major but crumbling ramp).
Whew. That was close. Hope my luck holds up tomorrow for the ride back into work.
It's easy to affix blame for some of these problems. The O'Donnell Park structure was questionable from the get-go and we've come to learn since the tragedy that construction plans weren't followed, certainly not when it came to the decorative panels in question. Political hay was made about who (Tom Barrett or Scott Walker) should be wearing goat horns for the Zoo morass.
As for Portage, I don't know much about levees but it seems to me that something built mostly out of sand some 110 years ago had probably used up most of it's functional life, even before last week's biblical rains that inundated Portage and most of Central Wisconsin.
"The levee is part of the Caledonia-Lewiston Levee System — several dikes built mainly out of sand during the 1890s by homeowners living near the river, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources," the Associated Press reported over the weekend as the berm started to leak.
A Google search turned up this report and the following background:
"The Levees were built from locally available materials without any engineering design or adherence to any design standards. These levees were intended to protect adjacent lands from periodic flood events of Wisconsin River. Despite their shortcomings the levees have, in fact, withstood frequent floods. A failure occurred in 1938, but since that time the levees have remained relatively intact. However, this is due primarily to the direct result of substantial and timely flood emergency action by the local governments and the WDNR. It should be noted that despite substantial maintenance and emergency actions by local government and WDNR, the continued integrity of the levees has survived because there have been no major flood events that would have damaged them or require major repairs to be undertaken. In short, it could be said that the integrity of these levees has not been tested by any significant flood events.
In their present condition the Caledonia-Lewiston Levees do not and should not be expected to provide any meaningful protection from the Wisconsin River flooding with or without human intervention during flood events. With ever increasing development in the flood prone areas along the Wisconsin River, reliance on these levees for providing flood protection elevates the risk of putting lives and properties in harm‘s way.
On numerous occasions local units of government have been strongly advised not to rely on these levees to protect human life, health and property and that any attempts to repair or operate these levees during flood events were extremely dangerous and might result in loss of human life. "
There's much more to the report, done by a group called The Levee Working Group. Click on the above link if you want to see some more of it.
What's happening in Central Wisconsin in terms of rainfall is certainly beyond the pale, not unlike what the Milwaukee area experienced in June. That said, the reports I found with just a couple of mouse-clicks provide detailed, precise warnings about the inadequacy of this system and the need to do something before the unthinkable happens. Nothing was done, though, and now Portage is dealing with high water. Sounds as though it could've been even worse.
Portage is the latest example of our area's faltering infrastructure. In some cases, it's bad design. In others, shoddy workmanship. In this case, it seems like a combination of an elderly, home-crafted solution to a situation no one wanted to address. "That sand pile stood for a century," you can almost hear someone saying. "There's no reason to think it won't last for years to come."
It took a big rain and a couple of Google searches to prove just how faulty that thinking was.