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Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change

Adaptation and Resiliency: Guiding Principles in Practice


Allison Madison

“Adaptation and Resiliency” is one of the six guiding principles of the Dane County Climate Action Plan. But what do these words really mean? From an ecological perspective, adaptation and resilience are a natural system’s ability to adjust to change and bounce back from a disturbance.

At this point in 2020, I think we all recognize that systems don’t always bounce back nearly as quickly or linearly as we may hope. Systems can, and do, recover from major disturbances. Dane County was under hundreds of feet of snow and ice 20,000 years ago. But there was that really hot and dry period in between when Wisconsin was a giant prairie, and, well, 20,000 years is 20,000 years. If we aren’t patient enough for geological, even biological, timescales, we have some work to do.

Planning for adaptation and resilience means anticipating and preparing for risks. One major risk that climate scientists have identified for southern Wisconsin is an increased frequency of extreme storms. We’ve already experienced a 15-20% increase in annual precipitation since the middle of the 20th century. Current climate projections predict this trend will continue with a similar uptick in precipitation events exceeding 2” of precipitation per day across much of the state.

Dane County is actively addressing the current and future reality of more intense rainfall events by investing in an emergency sandbag program, replacing undersized road culverts, acquiring key conservation acreage that will reduce stormwater run-off, and managing our lakes and wetlands to reduce flood impacts.

Currently, our lakes are not resilient to extreme storms. We shouldn’t be surprised by this because we took away nature’s safety net when we drained and filled over 50% of the wetlands that surrounded the Yahara lakes. Wetlands are nature’s sponges: they absorb water, store it, and allow for a gradual recharge into neighboring systems.

Without wetlands to help capture and slow down water, erosion from farm fields and urban runoff over the past century has deposited feet of sediment in the Yahara River and its tributaries. What was once fertile soil on the land, is now nutrient-rich muck in our waterways.  To make matters worse, this eroded material clogs streams and rivers and slows down water flow. After a 2” rainfall, it takes roughly two weeks for the lakes to return to pre-storm levels. 

In June, the County began the first phase of a 5-year sediment removal project in the Yahara River to build resiliency back into our lakes system. This summer the equivalent of over 3,000 dump trucks of excess sediment were removed from the Yahara River between Monona and Waubesa. Dredging will occur at four other sites within the river channel in subsequent summers. By the end of the project, 2” of rainfall should drain through the lakes in one week, reducing by half the likelihood of flooding on the isthmus and in the City of Monona.

Homeowners and businesses throughout the watershed can support this work by keeping rainfall on their property and thus reducing stormwater runoff into our lakes. Downspouts and hoses that divert water to the storm drain don’t solve problems, they just send them downstream.

Rain gardens, permeable pavement, and native vegetation are small but significant solutions that promote infiltration and reduce stress on natural systems. (Deeply-rooted native grasses and flowers provide the added benefit of increased carbon capture and sequestration.) These elements of green infrastructure build resilience back into our natural system and increase property values. Take the first step toward keeping more rainfall on your property, by checking out the County’s list of local vendors and get site-specific recommendations. 

If you live in the Westmorland neighborhood, the City of Madison has grant funding available to support green infrastructure projects. If not, reach out to local decision makers and share with them the importance of funding this work throughout Dane County and the Yahara River watershed. Together we can make a difference. Together, Dane County.


Allison Madison

Allison Madison


Allison has studied and taught sustainability for many years. From her native Wisconsin, she has ventured out to mountain ranges and lakeshores across the country and back again. She writes for the Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change to give readers food for thought and actionable suggestions to be a part of the county’s work to address climate change. Together we can forge a better future. Together. Dane County.


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