10 Ways Wisconsin's Wet Summer Of 2017 Continued To Touch The State

Floodwaters Recede But Rains Left A Lingering Mark
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A truck drives through a flooded street in Burlington after heavy rains in early July drivers are advised to not travel across open water, no matter how shallow.

With the summer of 2017 in the record books, many parts of Wisconsin are still feeling the impact of the season's wet weather. The state saw near record-levels of rain in the first half of 2017, causing a host of problems, including widespread flooding and tougher growing conditions. Additional effects of this wet weather emerged as the season ended and drier conditions arrived with autumn. Here are more ways Wisconsin's rainy summer touched life around the state.

1. Floods in southeastern Wisconsin were swiftly followed by more in the western part of the state

On July 21, Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency for 17 counties across the western half of Wisconsin because of intense flooding that followed multiple days of heavy rains. The counties were Buffalo, Crawford, Dane, Grant, Green, Iowa, Jackson, Juneau, La Crosse, Lafayette, Monroe, Pepin, Richland, Rock, Sauk, Trempealeau and Vernon (some of which were previously struck by heavy floods in September 2016). In October, President Donald Trump approved federal disaster assistance for 11 counties.

This round of storms followed flooding in several southeastern Wisconsin counties over the previous two weeks. Because of this flooding, nearly 3,800 homes were damaged, more than half of which were around Burlington, and state officials have estimated repairs would cost $26 million in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties alone.

In all, these two bouts of storms in mid-July caused major water damage to homes and businesses across Wisconsin. The flooding forced the closure of roads, lakes, parks and trails around the state.

2. Wet conditions helped foster a troublesome plant disease

Wet weather over the year created ideal conditions for a destructive fungal disease to spread more quickly across gardens and farm fields. Late blight is an invasive species of mold that regularly strikes Wisconsin and can devastate tomato and potato plants. In 2017, it was first spotted in Waukesha County. This disease can be difficult to contain and can damage crops greatly.

3. More rain can mean less toxic algae in lakes

Compared to 2016, fewer instances of toxic blue-green algae were recorded over the summer in Lake Petenwell, the Castle Rock Flowage and some smaller central Wisconsin lakes. An Adams County lakes specialist attributed this shift, in part, to wetter conditions and lower summer temperatures in 2017. More rainfall means more water movement within lakes — when water is cooler and in motion, it’s less likely to support the algal blooms.

4. The wet summer has taken a toll on wild rice harvests

Wet conditions made wild rice harvests smaller in 2017. Typically, growers can harvest 30 to 40 pounds of wild rice in a single trip per year. But heavy rains, along with damage from waterfowl, contributed to smaller yields this year. As of mid-October, wild rice beds on 45 of 99 waters that have been surveyed in northern Wisconsin were in poor condition, according to a Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission map.

5. Wet conditions can have varying effects on different types of insects

Of course, lots of rain will produce standing water, which in turn provides more habitat for mosquitoes to breed. Indeed, wet conditions in the spring and early summer led to more mosquitos by June, making them a bigger nuisance through the rest of the season.

But all of that rainfall isn't a boon for all bugs, explained entomologist Phil Pelliteri on the Aug. 16, 2017 edition of Wisconsin Public Radio’s The Larry Meiller Show. Copious moisture promotes fungal diseases among some insect species, which can limit their growth and numbers. Meanwhile, insects that favor drier conditions, like spider mites, likewise don’t do as well in the rainy conditions. "There are always winners and losers," said Pelliteri.

6. Flooding put a damper on the state’s tourism industry

Summer is one of the busiest seasons for Wisconsin tourism. In 2017, however, businesses relying on these prime months faced an uphill battle attracting vacationers around America's Dairyland. Flooding in 17 counties put a strain on the industry, though state officials won’t know the exact financial impact this year's torrential rains had until next spring after tax season.

7. Fall colors fade quickly

Trees and the people who enjoy their seasonal changes just couldn't catch a break in 2017. Both extremes of wet and dry conditions across the state affected the vibrancy and longevity of fall colors this year. Large amounts of rain can contribute to a lack of vibrancy in leaf colors, while drier autumn weather has caused leaves to dry up and prematurely turn brown.

8. Parts of Wisconsin are still reeling from 2016 floods — and still waiting for FEMA money

A major storm on July 11, 2016 claimed lives and caused millions of dollars in damage across eight counties and the Bad River reservation in northern Wisconsin. To pay for the repairs to their infrastructure, some municipalities had to take out loans. More than a year later, they had yet to see any reimbursement from the federal government.

It's a similar story for victims of the September 2016 flooding in western Wisconsin. Crews from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been back to that part of the state to assess damage from the previous year's flooding, but given the devastation caused by hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida and elsewhere, some local governments in Wisconsin are worried that federal money will be diverted from recovery needs Wisconsin. However, officials note it’s not unusual for this process to take a year, or more. Repairs must be 100 percent complete before they are eligible for reimbursement. This long wait has discouraged some from even applying for federal aid despite more damaging storms in 2017.

If local governments are ever denied a federal disaster emergency, Wisconsin has an emergency fund that communities can apply to. As of the end of September, there was about $782,000 in the fund, with 48 applications from local governments pending to access money.

9. Over the longer term, communities turn attention to prevention

Communities across Wisconsin are increasingly taking preventative measures against flood damages. For example, after two bouts of flooding in 2007 and 2008 across southwestern Wisconsin, the village of Gays Mills used federal funding to move homes and businesses out of a floodplain.

10. Yes, precipitation was above normal in the first half of the summer and rains are heavier compared to those in the past

Over the first part of the summer, most of the state received above average rainfall, explained Steve Ackerman, a professor of atmospheric sciences and director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, speaking on the July 31, 2017 edition of WPR’s The Larry Meiller Show. Indeed, lake and river levels were up as well. In southern Wisconsin specifically, Ackerman discussed how the region had rain for more than half the days in July, and Madison was at about 175 percent of normal precipitation by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, perceptions in the Great Lakes region that rains are heavier in recent years have a basis in records, Ackerman noted. However, while the annual amount hasn’t changed much, the precipitation is falling over fewer and hence stronger rain events. It’s a correlation observed with climate change, he explained, but the specific causation is not understood.

Rainfall totals across most of Wisconsin were drier than normal or only slightly above average through August and into the autumn months, as tracked by the Wisconsin State Climatology Office.

What about the rest of the year? Forecasts are mixed. The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center projects near-normal precipitation levels for Wisconsin. On the other hand, its winter outlook for 2017-18 suggests slightly above average chances for increased precipitation levels across Wisconsin.

Finally, there's the a wildcard in the form of La Niña. Two years after a major El Niño helped drive a mild winter in Wisconsin, conditions in the Pacific Ocean have led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Weather Service to issue a La Niña Watch. These organizations track what is called ENSO (or the El Niño-Southern Oscillation), which describes a cyclical climate pattern in the tropical Pacific Ocean that can affect weather around much of the planet. As of mid-September, forecasters projected a 55-60 percent chance of La Niña conditions persisting through the winter, a pattern that continued into October. Should La Niña continue to develop, that pattern could mean it’s more likely for Wisconsin to experience slightly cooler and slightly wetter winter weather.

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