Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Climate change in Wisconsin: How it is affecting our state and what is being done to address it.
Climate change has risen to the forefront of policy and the minds of millions as governments across the world work to curb the warming of Earth’s atmosphere.
But on a small scale, states across the U.S. are also feeling the effect of climate change — hotter summers and colder winters, rising water levels and severe droughts. Wisconsin hasn’t been spared, and advocates and officials are now examining the effects and trying to implement solutions — in addition to those recently proposed at the global COP26 summit — to slow the effects to the residents of the state.
Here’s a look at the ways climate change is affecting Wisconsin, and the state’s plans to address the issue.
Climate change is causing more storms, floods, droughts
In the coming years, Wisconsin will face a host of effects from climate change, aside from warmer summers and colder winters.
Already visible is the increased number of storms during the summer, such as those that pummeled the state in August, knocking out power for days for some residents. In the coming years, Wisconsin could see more frequent severe storms, dropping more rain in shorter periods of time, as well as causing more tornadoes.
With the increase in the number of storms and more frequent heavy rains, flooding is more likely to be a problem for the state, too. Wisconsin’s average annual precipitation has increased between 5% and 20% since 1950, depending on the region of the state. And because the rain events are dropping more water, severe flooding is causing problems such as sewer overflows in Milwaukee or wet basements in Madison.
There are effects on either end of the extremes. Climate change is also exacerbating droughts for some areas, such as northern Minnesota and southern Wisconsin. This year’s wildfire season stretched into the early summer, despite usually ending in the spring with the annual spring rains. Some areas of the state saw below-average rainfall, leading to fires that scorched parts of the state up until mid-June this year.
Even this fall, all of Wisconsin remains at moderate risk for wildfires, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Water levels in Mississippi River, Lake Michigan drop
Thanks to dry weather in northern Minnesota this year, the upper portion of the Mississippi River faced a drop in water levels. In Wacouta, south of Minneapolis, where the river goes from narrow to very wide, the lower water levels have caused issues for transport, with only one barge able to pass through the main channel at a time. In some places, barges could run aground on unexpected sandbars, causing problems for travel and shipping in the area.
The low levels are a reversal after nearly a decade of high water levels, with extreme flooding in 2019. But it’s likely the low water seems more extreme than it actually was, because people were used to seeing such a high flow.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, water levels in Lake Michigan have also dropped, revealing a few extra inches of beachfront this summer. But the drop in the water level doesn’t mean that the lake level is low. Lake Michigan was still about 22 inches above its average level in May, while Lake Superior to the north was about eight inches above average.
‘Natural’ solutions could help curb carbon in Earth’s atmosphere
Wisconsin is looking to combat climate change.
One such effort is Gov. Tony Evers’ plan to plant 75 million trees by Dec. 31, 2030, in addition to conserving 125,000 acres across the state. By conserving land, and either maintaining or reforesting that land, Wisconsin can greatly increase its ability to absorb carbon and restore areas that could even help prevent flooding.
When all 75 million trees are planted, they’ll be able to store 28.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next 50 years, according to 1t.org, which is managed by the World Economic Forum and American Forests. That’s equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide produced by 6 million passenger vehicles in a year.
In general, forests, farms and grasslands capture about 25% of global carbon emissions and even after trees die they can transfer carbon to the soil, keeping it out of the air for up to 70,000 years.
Restoring wetlands could mean less flooding
In Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has been working to combat floods for the last 20 years through various means, looking at the entire land area that channels rainwater and snowmelt to the creeks, streams and rivers, called a watershed.
In some areas, MMSD has restored rivers and creeks to their previous states, removing concrete that funneled excess water too quickly during storms, creating flooding conditions at the end of their run.
Restoring naturally occurring wetlands has been a priority, too. Wetlands can hold thousands of gallons of excess rainwater or snowmelt, releasing it slowly into the watershed over time.
The sewerage district has also purchased land running along the rivers that flow into Milwaukee, restoring the natural floodplains, and moving homes out of the danger zone when it comes to flooding — a project that the district has dubbed “Greenseams.”
Ashland County in far northern Wisconsin is taking part in a pilot program aimed at establishing guidelines for repairing historical wetlands and restoring tributaries to major rivers in the area, preventing waterways from creating massive flood conditions.
In Dane County, about $5 million was invested in dredging channels between the lakes that surround the city of Madison, removing sediment and helping the water move in the manner it’s supposed to during heavy storms, instead of flooding the banks of lakes and rivers and flowing into homes and businesses.
In the southwestern Wisconsin community of Darlington, where flooding of the Pecatonica River has plagued the city for decades, the city filled in basements, knocked down buildings, and moved homes and businesses out of the way of floodwaters. The wastewater treatment plant was moved out of the water’s reaches and all utilities were raised as much as 8 feet off the ground. A park and campground were created to help mitigate the floods by provide space to absorb the water.
Energy provider pledges to go coal-free
In early November, WEC Energy Group, the parent company of utility We Energies, also based in Milwaukee, and Wisconsin Public Service based in Green Bay, pledged that it would look toward other sources of power in a bid to be coal-free by 2035.
The company, which also owns utilities in Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan, plans to invest $5.4 billion in renewable energy between 2022 and 2026, reducing its release of harmful greenhouse gases created by the burning of coal to generate energy.
The company’s move away from coal demonstrates just how quickly the energy industry overall is shifting away from fossil fuels, said Tom Content, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin, a consumer watchdog group that monitors energy rates in the state.
Task force suggested other ways to combat climate change
In addition to actions already being taken, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes’ Climate Change Task Force has also put forth other suggestions for the state to address the issue. The task force included lawmakers, environmental advocates, farmers, business representatives and others who issued a report in December identifying strategies in nine areas, including energy, agriculture and education.
Evers included almost all of the policies suggested by the task force, but most were removed by the Republican-led Legislature earlier this year before the budget was finalized, saying they were part of a “liberal wish list.”
A few items connected to the goals in the report were retained by Republicans and made it into the final version of the state’s two-year budget.
One task force strategy was raising the cap on grants to farmer-led groups that help prevent runoff that causes non-point pollution. Republicans agreed to provide $250,000 more per year for two years to the now $1 million program, while Evers wanted that extra amount every year.
Republicans also approved funding and bonding authority for Department of Natural Resources water quality and flood control programs. They approved part of what Evers wanted for county conservation staff grants but rejected funding that would provide grants for staff that would focus on climate change.
Legislative Democrats introduced a new package of 22 bills in recent days that also face little chance of advancing.
Federal programs will aid Wisconsin efforts
In addition to efforts within Wisconsin, federal dollars will soon flow to the state to help address some climate change-related issues.
In the recently passed infrastructure bill — worth $1.2 trillion — Wisconsin stands to receive over $500 million to improve public transport, nearly $80 million to expand the state’s electric vehicle charging network and an additional $2.5 billion in grant funding dedicated to EV charging.
In President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which is still being debated in Congress, billions would be provided to expand tax credits for utility and residential clean energy, clean energy vehicles and clean energy manufacturing. The bill also includes billions of dollars for “resilience” programs to ward off and prepare for extreme weather such as wildfires and hurricanes, which are made worse by climate change.
About this feature
This is a weekly feature for online and Sunday print readers delving into an issue in the news and explaining the actions of policymakers. Email suggestions for future topics to firstname.lastname@example.org.