Melissa Gavin of Cross Plains talks about how flood waters reached and damaged her house in 2018. Gavin attributes the flooding to climate change. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Melissa Gavin of Cross Plains talks about how flood waters reached and damaged her house in 2018. Gavin attributes the flooding to climate change. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Stop contributing to the problem, and plan ahead for the impacts that are now our new normal.

[Editor’s Note: For more stories in our “No Time to Lose” series, see our hub HERE.]

When Melissa Gavin looked out of a window at her backyard and noticed that a steady rain had transformed into torrential downpour, she realized this wouldn’t be just another storm affecting her community of Cross Plains, a village just west of Madison.

As afternoon turned to evening on Aug. 20, 2018, a hard rain turned deluge had transformed the small, meandering Brewery Creek that winds its way through Gavin’s backyard into a fast-flowing river. Nearby roads were soon covered in water as the rain continued to pound down. Drivers stopped trying to make their way through the storm.

The Gavins descended into their finished basement and realized it was taking on water. Outside, the water level continued to climb, soon rising above the level of the basement windows. The space suddenly felt like an aquarium, with fish swimming by outside.

“It was surreal,” Gavin recalled of the storm that night that dumped 15 inches of rain on the Cross Plains area. “We had never seen it rain that hard for so long. We were just hoping the basement windows weren’t going to break and let all of that water in.”

The basement windows at the Gavins’ home held up, but the basement flooded anyway, ruining the furnace, washer and dryer, and many books and other items the family had there. More than 300 houses in the Cross Plains area were significantly damaged by the storm.

John Burandt’s house was among them. His basement filled with water when Black Earth Creek overflowed its banks during the historic storm in which one person died.

“If I would have stepped off my porch, I was stepping into that creek,” he said.

Regular life was put on hold as neighbors helped neighbors clean up in the aftermath of the record rain. Local Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops organized efforts to assist those in need. Orders for new furnaces to replace flood-damaged ones were delayed as supply couldn’t keep pace with demand.

As cleanup efforts continued, Gavin wondered what, if anything, could be done to prevent future floods from occurring. She didn’t have specific ideas for how to address climate change. But she felt compelled to seek them. 

About a month after the flood, Gavin decided to attend a Cross Plains Village Board meeting. During the public input session, she requested that board members take action on climate change in the hope it could reduce future significant weather events. 

“If we don’t do something about it, it’s going to continue, and these floods are going to get worse,” she told the board.  

Following her presentation, board member Kevin Thusius approached Gavin to discuss her comments. For several years he had been concerned about climate change but didn’t know what to do about it. Now Gavin’s comments seemed to offer an opportunity to discuss the topic.

“We didn’t know how we would do it, but we said ‘let’s do something about this,’” Thusius recalled of his initial discussion with Gavin regarding climate change. 

The duo and others interested in the topic met to decide how to proceed. They ultimately determined they would be most effective working with village officials, and they subsequently formed a sustainability committee that advises the village board but is not an official arm of village government.

“We decided it would be wise to work with the [village] board directly,” Thusius said. “The village has the money and the governance structure to make decisions. So we decided to go that route.”

Melissa Gavin shows how high high flood waters reached on a window of her Cross Plains’ home Friday during a flooding event in August 2018. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Taking Action

The Aug. 20, 2018, flood served as a wake-up call about climate change, Burandt said, as did a meeting he attended a few months later organized by Gavin that featured UW-Madison and Dane County experts on geography and flooding. Presenters at the event described a half dozen severe floods in recent years in southern Wisconsin, growing evidence, they said, of climate change. 

Meeting presenters “brought a lot of stuff into focus that I had never connected the dots on before,” Burandt said. “The big storm we had in Cross Plains wasn’t just an isolated event.”

Heavier rainfalls and precipitation in general have increased in Wisconsin in recent decades, studies show. According to Environmental Protection Agency figures released in 2017 detailing Wisconsin’s climate, average annual precipitation has grown 5 to 10 percent in most of the Midwest during the last 50 years. Rainfall during the four wettest days of the year in those locations has increased 35 percent during that time, increasing flooding risks. 

Burandt joined the sustainability committee, officially approved by the village board in August 2019. Since then the five-member group has taken multiple steps to reduce the village’s energy consumption. 

Among its endeavors, the committee devised a residential ordinance that makes it easier for people to install solar panels at their homes; the village board is expected to adopt the ordinance soon. Committee members also studied developer agreements and covenants and discovered many of them prohibited solar installation. They advised the village board to change those rules to allow solar to be part of developments. 

The committee also is working with a consultant to determine whether and where to build a solar farm that could provide power to the village, making it a carbon-neutral operation. In addition, the group has worked with other communities on sustainability-related matters.  

Sustainability Committee members praised the village board for supporting their initiatives. Thusius said the board is thankful for the committee’s expertise and input. 

“So far this has been a really effective partnership,” Thusius said.

‘Doing our part’ 

Cross Plains, a village of nearly 4,000 about 15 miles west of Madison, is a mix of people who commute to Madison for work and those more rooted to the rural village, and not everyone supports sustainability measures.

While some in the village back those ideas because they’re concerned about climate change and believe reducing humans’ environmental footprint is the right thing to do, others don’t share that philosophy and don’t want to pay extra to take such measures. 

“Not everyone here supports these ideas,” said Thusius, who works for the Ice Age Trail Alliance, which works to support and protect a 1,000-mile footpath following Ice Age formations in Wisconsin. “You have the old guard versus the newer people here in Cross Plains. Support for these initiatives to address climate change will likely come down to the bottom [financial] line.”

However, more severe weather events in recent years, most notably the 15-inch rainfall, have convinced many that action is needed to address climate change, Thusius and Burandt said. A recent committee survey of village residents shows most support making changes to waterways that feed into the village to mitigate future flooding. 

“There seems to be a growing awareness that climate change is real, and we need to do something about it,” Burandt said.

The storm that dumped 15 inches on their town remains etched in Cross Plains residents’ minds more than two years after it happened. Gavin said she and others still sometimes get nervous when it begins to rain, a reminder that the event some refer to as “the big storm” wasn’t predicted as a major rainfall.

“Now every time it starts to rain, it’s like we have PTSD,” she said. “We’re always afraid that the next big storm is coming.”  

As she reflects on the nearly two years since she spoke at a village board meeting about addressing climate change, Gavin said she’s thankful her words that night have turned into direct action. She is grateful for the support of her fellow Sustainability Committee members, for the village board, and for other backers.

Neighbors of Melissa Gavin have built a riprap wall of stone to mitigate future floods from damaging homes in Cross Plains. (Photo © Andy Manis)

In an ironic twist, Gavin said the severe storm that flooded homes and destroyed improvements to Black Earth Creek, a prized Class 1 trout stream, also served as a means of prompting action. Without that storm, she said, she may well not have garnered support when she urged the village board to take action to address climate change. 

“If that storm hadn’t happened, I don’t know that anybody would have listened to me,” Gavin said. “The timing was just right. And now the time is right to keep taking action, to keep doing our part.”