Meteorologists expect a 'wetter than normal' Wisconsin winter. Here's why that could be a big problem.
A National Weather Service prediction that Wisconsin will see a wetter-than-normal winter this year may have sent you running to buy a new snow shovel.
In regions of the state where the ground is already so heavily saturated — like Appleton and Green Bay, which both broke precipitation records in September — it's not the news we were hoping to hear.
Above-average precipitation during the winter looks different than it does during the summer, said meteorologist Scott Berschback at the weather service's Green Bay office.
The atmosphere can't hold as much moisture in the colder months, so there are no predictions of major winter floods. But if we get lots of snow and ice, the spring thaw will cause bigger problems for ground that is already saturated and rivers and lakes that are already high, Berschback said.
It doesn't sound good. And for some Wisconsinites, the consequences could be dire.
'The main topic of conversation' for farmers
It's hard to overstate the impact of an unusually wet season on the state's agricultural community, said Julia Noordyk, a water quality and coastal communities outreach specialist for the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute.
Farmers worry about what feels like a new normal. Rick Adamski, director of the Wisconsin Farmers' Union district that spans most of the eastern part of the state, said he's had three years of wet springs at the Seymour farm he runs with his wife, Valerie Dantoin. Every time, it's put them behind schedule.
Between farmers, excess water "has been the main topic of conversation," Adamski said. "We try to compare notes — misery loves company."
With the ground already saturated, a wet winter will delay spring field work, because cooler soil makes it harder to plant seeds for annual crops, and too much moisture in the ground makes it tough to get cattle out on fresh pasture to start grazing, Adamski explained.
Wisconsin in particular is going to start seeing more precipitation in the form of rain than snow, Noordyk said. Climate science predicts winter temperatures will warm eight degrees by 2050.
That's no help to farmers: Bare fields where rain runs off, instead of snow piling up, are much more vulnerable to soil erosion. And without a snow cover to insulate crops that are growing in November and December, a cold snap can kill them, Dantoin said.
Adamski and Dantoin said some farmers weren't able to plant in their fields at all this past year due to excessively wet conditions.
To ward it off in the future, they planted expensive drain tiles into the ground, which are plastic corrugated tubing with slats on top to let water drain through.
But even that probably isn't a long-term solution, Adamski said.
"I'm afraid to say it, but I don't think we have seen the worst," he said. "If indeed we do have a wet winter, it will get worse."
Nowhere to go but homes
Urban and suburban areas have cause for anxiety, too, especially in places where the storm water systems are at capacity, Noordyk said.
Another flooded spring can strain the infrastructure meant to keep runoff from doing damage.
In Green Bay, aging infrastructure that doesn't handle excess water well makes the area especially vulnerable.
It also could mean bad news for people living along low-lying flood plains. Earlier this spring, a frozen ground with four feet of snow on top of it was quickly undone by rain on a 50-degree day.
"Water has nowhere to go except down people's properties," she said.
High lake levels are an additional risk for the Green Bay area, Noordyk added, noting that there are parts of the city where the water can't drain out because the lake levels are so high that water is being pushed up through the storm system.
Preparing for the worst
There are ways to prepare for another wet winter.
For farmers, more perennial crops and pasture lands could rest the fields and restore soil health to give them a better chance of surviving these types of winters, Dantoin said.
And the folks who staff the Wisconsin Emergency Management team are always ready and closely monitoring developing weather situations, said spokesperson Andrew Beckett.
"These are the situations the state trains for," he said.
Nonetheless, a wet season — winter, spring, summer or fall — is always expensive. This past March, the State Emergency Operations Center reported over $1 million in public infrastructure damage caused by spring flooding. A spate of storms in August 2018 cost the state nearly $209 million.
Of course, it's impossible to know exactly what a wetter-than-normal winter will bring this time around. But there's cause for concern.
Contact Madeline Heim at 920-996-7266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @madeline_heim.