If climate models are to be believed, Ashland County can expect an additional one to three inches of rain every year for the next several decades.
One to three inches might not sound like much, but in an area that gets about 31 inches of precipitation a year, it's significant — and a few inches across the entire Marengo River watershed equates to hundreds of thousands of gallons of water.
The deluge likely already has begun; witness the catastrophic floods of 2016 and 2018 that transformed the Marengo from a small stream to a raging torrent with enough power to wipe out bridges, roads and homes.
"Not only have we experienced an increase in annual temperature, we are seeing increased precipitation here in the county by a couple of inches a year in the last decade or two, and what science is showing us is that Ashland County in particular will have increased precipitation as our climate is changing," Ashland County Conservationist MaryJo Gingras said. "We are going to be one of the areas that is most impacted in Wisconsin."
The county now is taking steps to prepare for that rain — particularly to the damage it already is doing to the
Marengo River, which stretches from the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Clam Lake to its confluence with the Bad River.
The most ambitious of those plans involves restoration of degraded wetlands to a more natural state, essentially by moving earth to restore the function of the wetlands to take and retain storm water, slowly allowing it to drain off and thereby slowing the flow of the water in the main river.
"We will be rehabilitating or repairing the wetlands that were previously there," Gingras said.
Gingras said the Marengo already has suffered erosion to headwater streams, eroding ravines and a resulting loss in the land's capacity to store storm water.
The county's attack on the problem really began in 2019, when it changed its land and water plan to include climate adaption strategies.
Although the plan is just a document, Gingras said it might be the most important thing the county has done because it recognizes that increased flooding is a fundamental change that was not accounted for in previous plans.
"We are utilizing our knowledge of climate change to say how we are going to adapt to this, how are we going to respond, to better improve our ability to accept this water on the landscape," she said.
One way to deal with the threats of repeated flooding is to make changes to the river system that improves the river's own natural systems to mitigate flooding like that caused by the heavy rainfalls in 2016 and 2018.
A $157,000 pilot project called Act 157, funded by the state, seeks to demonstrate the ability of a variety of conservation projects to slow the flow in the Marengo during storms.
One of the goals of the project is to reconnect flood plains that were once a part of the river system but have become disconnected, often by farmers seeking to create more agricultural lands, but also by the floods themselves. These flood plains allowed water to be stored on land next to the river during major rainstorms, slowing the speed of water flow and reducing the creation of gullies and other erosion impacts like culvert and road washouts. Now they are cut off from the river and no longer serve that function.
This work is done through voluntary, cooperative arrangements with landowners who have erosion or conservation concerns and agree to have the work done on their properties. Ordinarily, landowners hire contractors and are reimbursed by the Conservation Department using federal funds, but under the grant, the work will be funded and contractors hired directly through the department.
Gingras said the project sites have been selected and the work is in the design phase, with earthmoving to restore the wetlands set to begin this fall or in the summer of 2022.
The Wisconsin Wetlands Association worked with the Legislature to pass Act 157. The organization's local outreach specialist, Kyle Magyera, said the damage done by flooding thus far is reversible.
"The demonstration project will be intended to showcase how you can use multiple different techniques to restore wetlands back, to get them performing the way they should," he said. "The hope is we can come up with cost effective techniques that farmers and landowners can adopt on their own, and hopefully we can scale up and utilize a lot of the tactics that will be used in the Act 157 projects."
The county also has requested $460,000 in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds to restore two degraded wetlands in the same tributary where Act 157 projects will be occurring. The sites are owned by a pair of private landowners. One of the projects would require the repairing of a berm that blew out during the 2016 flooding. The other involves work to restore the natural contours of the land, reestablishing its water-retention and release properties.
Once restored, those wetlands would help reduce the volume of water hitting the river during storms.
Gingras said the county has also received a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources grant to install a stream flow gauge on the Marengo to measure the river's flow and water quality, which will help quantify improvements the projects make to the stream.
Gingras said she sees many other counties taking on similar work in response to climate change.
"Once a suite of practices and funding sources are identified and approved, it will be much easier for natural resource managers to implement these types of projects and adapt to changing climate conditions around the state and county," she said.
The search for an Odanah man missing since he crashed his SUV early on the morning of March 26 came to a tragic end when his body was discovered Tuesday in the town of Gingles.
Kevin Rosin, 32, spent the night of March 25 shooting darts at an Ashland-area tavern and was headed home when he crashed, rolling his Chevy Tahoe onto its roof in a ditch along Holmes Road. He crawled from the wreckage, leaving his cellphone behind, and was spotted at about 2:30 a.m. by a trail cam south of the crash site.
He disappeared after that, prompting a massive community effort to search several square miles of land, involving police, conservation wardens, border patrol agents and hundreds of volunteers, many of them, like Rosin, members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Rosin's body was found by an Ashland County deputy in the White River at about 1:45 p.m., Sheriff Mick Brennan said, within a couple of hundred yards of where his photo was captured by the trail cam. The discovery brought the search to a close and left volunteers in tears as they received the news and friends headed home to start and tend a fire to guide Rosin on his journey.
In the days before that, helicopters and airplanes
circled the area as searchers on the ground waded through swamps and tangled woods, seeking any clue of Rosin's whereabouts. K9 teams trained in tracking people joined searchers on ATVs combing the area.
A local hotel donated rooms for searchers from out of town. Ashland restaurants donated hot food for search parties, while social media was flooded with prayers for Rosin's safe return and well wishes for those in the field.
On Tuesday, a crew from St. Louis County, Minn., joined the effort with a machine that was half boat and half tractor, designed to traverse almost any terrain it encountered. A mobile command post was established at a dead-end road near the crash site, and volunteers gathered at a crossroads about a mile away, where a mini village sprang up to support the effort.
Rows of cars lined roads leading to the area, where a portable toilet was brought in, food shelters were erected to provide soup, fried chicken, water and snacks to volunteers, and an RV sat with a map of the area taped to its side and grid patterns planned out. A Bay Area Rural Transit bus and van idled nearby, waiting to warm searchers seeking shelter from Tuesdays cold and howling wind or to ferry search parties to their designated sites.
Friends described Rosin as a good family man and proud Bad River member. He worked for many years as a mechanic before taking a job at Ashland Mat, which manufactures wood products, where he worked until his death.
One of those friends, Robin Thomas Bineshii, spent Monday evening and Tuesday steadily chanting and thumping out a rhythm on a Native drum named for the Snake Trail area in which he played it during the catastrophic floods of 2016.
"It's mostly for the searchers," Bineshii said. "We sang the flag song this morning, and the air song for the people in the helicopters and planes up there, and you can see we're set up here where everyone can hear us. It's to give everyone an extra breath of hope. Everyone is exhausted and overwhelmed, and we want to give them good thoughts and feelings. The drum can carry much farther into the woods than our voices can, especially on a windy day like this."
Like Rosin, Bineshii is a mechanic who often helped Rosin out when he had too much work. They knew one another for years, and Bineshii was hopeful early Tuesday that his friend still could be found alive and well.
"He has a lot of cars to work on yet," Bineshii said. "He's a tough guy and he knows these woods, this area, as well as anyone."
Like Bineshii, Jim Stone knew Rosin and had a personal stake in finding him. As a warden with the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, he helped organize the search.
"There's no way Kevin would put people through this if he weren't really hurt or lost out there," Stone said Monday. "All of his friends and relatives are out here helping to look for him. He's a good family man and everyone is praying for his safe return."
Brennan said search parties worked through difficult terrain and brutal weather, ranging from snow and heavy rain to Tuesday's biting wind.
"Everyone searching, their instructions are to check every shed, every outbuilding, every abandoned vehicle, every cabin, every deer stand, really anything someone could get into," Brennan said Monday. "We've checked kids' pools turned over out in yards. We've checked a lot of these places twice now."
"We've even found a few structures on land that their owners didn't know about," added Jim Stone. "We've also checked every waterway leading all the way to the bay."
Brennan said that family members and tribal elders were told Tuesday afternoon that the body was found and an autopsy will be performed to determine whether Rosin died of injuries suffered in the crash or exposure to the elements.
But authorities may never know why Rosin headed south instead of north or how he eluded search parties who had covered the ground where he ultimately was found.
"As of now, we'll turn things over to the family who are obviously very devastated," Brennan said.
For cash-strapped local governments like Ashland and Bayfield counties, the news that the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 will have millions of dollars for local governments seemed like a gift of the gods.
But that money comes with some important strings attached, and though the cash headed to counties, towns and cities is substantial, both Ashland and Bayfield county executives warn that it won't be the cure-all for local financial woes.
Ashland County is due to get about $3 million in President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, with another $1.54 million in federal funds going to cities and towns in the county. Bayfield County will get about $2.94 million with another $1.94 million for the county's cities and towns. The money is part of $350 billion to be distributed to states, tribes, territories and units of local government.
But even as Ashland County heads to Tuesday's election asking residents to approve a $1 million property tax increase, Ashland County Administrator Clark Schroeder warned that federal restrictions on the funds will limit what the money can be used for — and it can't be used to cover expenses the tax referendum is aimed at.
"The bottom line is the County Board will make decisions on these things, but it can't be used for paying staff salaries, it can't be used for operations," Schroeder said. "It can be used to replace lost revenues that came from the pandemic, such as decreased sales taxes, decreased tourism taxes, but we didn't have any decreases in revenues except for timber revenue, so the question is, is a decrease in timber revenues related to the pandemic, and that is open to interpretation."
Schroeder said the funds could be used for investments in water and sewer projects or broadband infrastructure.
"But that doesn't mean you can use it for roads, where we have millions of dollars of projects backlogged. You can't use it to pay health care costs for your employees. You can use it to provide premium pay for employees who worked through the pandemic, if you want. And that of course will be a County Board decision," he said.
The money can also be used to provide relief for the harm the pandemic caused for households, small businesses and non-profits or aid industries such as tourism, travel or hospitality, Schroeder said.
Bayfield County Administrator Mark Abeles-Allison said his County Board has not decided what use it will make of the funds. He said the county's Executive Committee will review possible uses over the next several months before making recommendations to the full County Board.
"Planning is critical right now," Abeles-Allison said, saying that he recommended to members of the Ashland/Bayfield Towns Association that they "think boldly about catalytic and transformation uses of your recovery funds."
Whatever local governments would like to do with the money, nobody will be spending any of it until the Department of the Treasury issues detailed guidelines, which should happen by late April or early May, Schroeder said.
"Basically there are about four sentences included in the bill, and the Treasury Department has to come out with guidelines. Most of the law is interpreted by bureaucracy, and that is what makes the law applicable," he said. "Guidance has not come down from Treasury and when it does, the County Board has until Dec. 31, 2024 to spend the funds."
Schroeder said the money would be made available, half on May 15 and the other half on May 15, 2022. He said he would encourage the County Board to spend the money on things that would do lasting good.
"This is one-time money, it's manna from heaven, so you should look at it as a gift and say what can you use that on so that five or 10 years from now you can look back on it and say 'man I am glad I invested in this, because this helped the long-term viability of the region,'" he said.
Schroeder said he was aware that many people were asking why the county couldn't use the federal money instead of moving forward with Tuesday's referendum, but the federal government's restrictions prohibit using the cash to cover such expenses.
"The county is struggling with paying the staff salaries, and you can't use it for that. That is not what it is for. It's a hard message," he said. "Why should the citizens vote for a proposed property tax increase when the federal money is coming down? The issue is if you don't spend the money correctly, you will have to pay it back."
Schroeder said the county will not rush to decide uses for the funding.
"It has to be done right, versus quick. The last thing we want is to come to 2024 and we get audited and all of a sudden we have to pay back $500,000 because we used it incorrectly," he said.