City News

As city plans for future flooding, new lake association president emphasizes science-based solutions

Sal Troia, near his family's property on the Yahara Chain. Troia, the new president of the Yahara Lakes Association, prioritizes flood control as he begins his term.

With the region emerging from a polar vortex and the burying of the Yahara Lakes beneath feet of snow and ice, summertime flooding might feel like a lifetime away.

But for Sal Troia, the new president of the Yahara Lakes Association, flooding is a worry that’s never far from his mind. 

Troia assumed his presidency in January, taking over for long-time leader Dan Schultz. The association represents the roughly 2,000 homeowners who live along the Yahara Chain of Lakes, and works with local officials to promote lake management.

As the spring approaches, Troia will represent the YLA in a series of public discussions regarding future flooding on the Yahara Lakes. 

“I can’t say enough about the fact that flooding is a really, really big issue,” Troia said. “My feeling is that we’ve got to be on top of this on a regular basis.”

Beginning Feb. 4, a Dane County Technical Commission will be holding informational meetings to discuss flood management solutions. It outlined its recommendations in a report published Feb. 1.  

The report identified several key adaptation and mitigation strategies the city might have taken to avoid some of the damage caused by last summer’s floods.

Among the options it investigated were lowering Lake Mendota by a foot, maintaining the lake at levels currently deemed to be safe and improving flow by pumping and dredging, dam removal and bridge alteration.

In the coming days, Troia will be meeting with the technical committee to review its recommendations.

Troia, who owns property on Lake Waubesa, lost the wetland habitat he had carefully cultivated along his shoreline during the 2018 flooding. He also witnessed the property damage many of his lakeside neighbors experienced, and the widespread impacts of flooding around the city.

As he begins his term, Troia said he will continue to focus the association’s attention and resources on flood control, and that science-based management will be a priority. 

Re-assessing lake levels is one of the first items on his agenda. 

“The [Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources] and the county need to take a look at those levels,” Troia said. “They need to be really reviewed to be up to date with today’s environmental issues. They’re old — they’re too old.”

In the Yahara Lakes, water level is regulated by a series of dams that guide water toward Stoughton, where the Yahara flows into Rock River. The lake levels were established by the DNR in 1979.

Some believe that, to prevent future flooding, the levels of the lakes themselves must be manipulated. 

Since 2012, local environmental organization Capital Region Advocacy for Environmental Sustainability has called for Lake Mendota summer ranges to be lowered by five feet to their pre- white settlement levels.Madison officials like Mayor Paul Soglin echoed that reasoning after the summer floods, recommending lake levels be lowered as much as a foot.  

Technical recommendations have since taken a more conservative approach, suggesting flow enhancement is more effective than lake level manipulation when it comes to controlling floods. 

If there are going to be any lake level reductions, Troia emphasized they must be rooted in rigorous scientific modeling. He also feels that, if lake level reductions prove viable, they should be looked at across all four lakes — in other words, the impacts of a potential lake level drop should be distributed among all lake property owners.

“The issue is there is a lot of emotion surrounding the issue of lake levels, and the emotions should not be driving the decisions that we’re trying to make,” Troia said. “We should be looking at scientific facts and come up with something that makes sense and go from there.”

Referencing recent studies published by UW-Madison engineers and limnologists, Troia said the association would be more inclined to advocate for measures that would increase flow through the lakes.

“The biggest issue, in my opinion, is that you need to maintain flow somehow,” Troia said. “Flow is the most critical issue as far as controlling flooding.”

Weeds, debris and excess sediment in the river channel can stall water as it exits the chain. During large rainstorms, these obstructions can exacerbate flood problems. 

Troia said the association will advocate for measures that will remove obstructions from the river, whether that means harvesting excess weeds or dredging.

The association is prepared to help finance these efforts, although so far the $19 million allocated by the city budget  to address flooding last fall may be enough to cover their costs, according to Troia. 

Monday evening marks the first in a series of open informational meetings the county will host to discuss the flood management solutions outlined in the report.

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