Coon Creek Community Watershed Council Inc.
by Matthew Mathison
Coon Valley had seen flooding before from rainfall, but nothing compared to the magnitude of the flood of 2018. Devastating only partially describes the aftermath as heavy rains inundated the area and several natural dams breached, leaving the small town and its people submerged in water. But as someone who did not grow up Coon Valley, Debbie Andre still wanted to stay. Reflecting on the 2018 flood now, Andre insists there are no outsiders in the Coon Valley community, only family and community. When the flood came and hit, no one was left behind. Everyone came together and lent out a helping hand. Having never been in a flood before, Andre described all the things that come with such a devastating event. She lost yearbooks, Christmas decorations, memories, and a lot of her belongings that she kept in her basement. But she also created a bond with the community, one that will hopefully contribute to the future safety of their town.
“It’s one big giant family”
Debbie grew up in northern Illinois, then moved to south Florida for work, and came back to her home to be closer to her family. When she was married, she moved to the cozy town of Coon Valley, bought a house, and settled down in her new home. Since becoming an empty-nester, Debbie likes to stay busy by getting involved in the community and helping where she can. Around 700 people call Coon Valley home, with one main street straight through the town, no big buildings, just a Kwik Trip, parks, and farmland. The area is beautiful, quiet, and has a great sense of community. Being in a smaller town, and getting more involved in her community, Debbie has gotten closer with a lot more of the community members.
It is hard to pick up and leave a place that you call home. The impact of 2018, and hearing of an organized group looking to prevent future incidents of flooding, gave Debbie hope that there was a way to give back to her community. Rather than wait for the government to get involved, Debbie saw value in building an organization with community members and volunteers, as they would be more invested in protecting their town. With Debbie’s work experience as a Data Analyst, a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting, and an MBA, she was named Treasurer of the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council (CCCWC).
In the aftermath of the 2018 flood, Debbie was not on her own to clean up the mess. After asking Debbie her experience with the flood, she brought up how her basement had 7 foot ceilings, with water 6 feet high, and how she lost everything. “Most homes, that’s where all your Christmas decorations are, your hot water heater and furnace.”
In addition, Debbie lost memories: high school yearbooks, photo albums, her childhood Christmas stocking. She had two sump pumps pumping water out of her basement. But she still
had more problems once the water was gone. Sediment that had been carried by the water ended up in her basement. Five gallon buckets full of mud had to be hauled out of her basement, along with her personal belongings, and thrown into a dumpster. “Started hauling stuff out, and just tossed it, didn’t even look at it, just tossed it all.”
Luckily, Debbie’s house was not terribly damaged in the flood, but others were not so fortunate. Some lost their whole homes and had to leave because it was too much. She had help from the nearby high schoolers, family members, and neighbors. This event motivated her to tenaciously help as many people as she could. She said, “The nice thing was when we were done with ours, I walked down the street and found out who else needed help and we were helping them. Hadn’t met them before, but they were there, and it was like, you gotta help everyone else now because we’re all in this together.” No one was left behind. Family members and neighbors came together and helped one another.
Most people outside the area have never heard of the flooding events that occur within Coon Valley, which is an unfortunate reality. Flooding in the creek seems to always overflow the banks. Compared to the 2018 flood, the consistent flooding is not close to the same magnitude. Nonetheless, simple rainfall can still cause farmlands, parks, and homes to experience flooding. “It’d be hard to leave just because of some natural thing you know you can help figure out how to fix it.” Debbie’s desire to find a solution to the natural disasters occuring in her hometown, along with her knowledge and experience are what drives her to serve her community. As Treasurer of the CCCWC, and a background as a Data Analyst, she works towards ensuring the council has the means to achieve the goals they set, and assess data, which she converts into creative ways to monitor water levels and flooding prevention.
Data is everywhere and something is collecting info on us somewhere around the clock. Further discussion with Debbie on other ways of collecting data, graphs, and visualizations, she was excited to share info on water sensors placed near the creek that can detect if water temperature changes, and if water levels get too high. She expressed how these sensors could mean saving those who are at risk of being caught in a flood.
Since the PL-566 natural dams did not work in retaining water, there have been discussions in the CCCWC on what the next best solution would be. Debbie said, “If you’re going to build these natural dams again, how long before they get compromised again by animals or rain again, so it’s like right back where we are now. And what did it really do for us?” The council is working to find a more strategic plan on what to focus on, with the assistance of Vernon County Land and Water, and representatives from La Crosse and Monroe County. Debbie described that no one wants to be that first guinea pig of trying to do things for the first time, but someone has to start the process, and the CCCWC is trying to start that process.
“To try and find ways locally to do it and get people involved is what I liked about the council”
The main idea is to get the farmers together and have them talk about the way they farm, so they can pass on healthy agricultural skills to their kids. Debbie said she would like to see their council and membership of the watershed council grow. “Because of the topic and how large of an area we cover, we should be having so many more people attending.” Education and information being passed between people will be a major solution to reducing flooding. “Coming at the situation from a level of respect, figuring out how to help each other, wanting to learn and apply it to other groups and situations,” this is how Debbie describes how the community can come together and promote conservation within Coon Valley.
by Cassandra Foote
Growing up surrounded by farms, Tucker Gretebeck always knew where his heart belonged. After teaching for five years, Tucker decided that there was more he wanted to do with his life. “When I taught school, I mean, looking out the window I was really jealous of the guy mowing the lawn.”
Now, Tucker runs his own Organic Valley farm and serves on the board of the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council (CCCWC) as the Vice President. “I didn’t show up to the meeting and that’s how I became Vice President,” he jokes. “My job is to bring everyone together, and that’s what I really like doing.”
Born in the small town of Stoddard, Wisconsin, Tucker grew up knowing nothing other than community. “I didn’t want to drive to La Crosse and teach at a big school. You know, I like small towns. I like community. I am really tied to it.” This is one of many things that grounded him after the devastating flood of 2018. He admits that the outcome of the flood would have looked much different in a larger city where you aren’t as tightly connected to everyone. When asked about the flood, Tucker often tends to focus on what he got out of it and how it shaped him into the person he is today, rather than focusing on the negative aspects that the flood brought.
Being raised surrounded with a family of hard working farmers, Tucker was given a mindset that most can’t obtain over a lifetime. His parents and grandparents went above and beyond, and instead of raising five acres of tobacco on their 120 acre dairy farm, they sometimes raised 20. Tucker admits, “it was like a landmark for planes to turn,” and recalls, “my grandparents were even king and queen of tobacco one year.”
His grandparents, as some of the biggest influences in his life growing up, provided Tucker with many of the most important values that he lives with to this day. His grandfather was someone who never wasted anything and always found a use for what seemed like the most miniscule of items. “If somebody was tearing down a garage or whatever, he would take all of the boards, stack them up, and then pull the nails out and straighten them and then use them on bird houses. I think I’m a lot like that, too.” This aspect of his personality is shown clearly in his reconstruction of a feeder wagon into a greenhouse after the 2018 flood when it was found tangled in the upper branches of a large tree within the valley. Speaking of that greenhouse and so much of his work, Tucker reflects, “I like to make something out of nothing.”
Coon Creek is a 90,000 acre watershed located in southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, a region of the Midwest that wasn’t covered by the most recent waves of glaciation. This is why it has the rolling landscape it does, and gives the area its unique character. As Tucker explains of driving in the watershed, “everytime you go up and down a hill, you are looking at something totally new, and not one of our hill roads are the same.”
According to Tucker, Coon Creek offers one of the best examples of the power of community. Tucker reflects on this when he looks back on one of the biggest weekends his farm has ever seen, when the Valley portions of his family’s farm were washed away in the August 2018 floods. As Tucker explains, “We had a tobacco shed and it was covered on three sides with murals, and it was phenomenal. It was something that nobody else had.” Even though that tobacco shed was lost in the flood, the sense of community it represents was not. Members of the community came together to help his farm recover in the wake of the flood. As Tucker recalls, “People take care of us and they come from all over the place. It’s just a different atmosphere that we can create and that’s what I like doing.”
Tucker grew up with a brother who was a year and a half older than him, and a sister a year and a half younger. Most of his family remains side by side, and he jokes, “We have a lot of family really close which is great… sometimes.” Later in life, Tucker attended Westby High School and continued on at Mount Senario College where he got his teaching degree. Tucker admits, “I knew I wanted to farm, I just didn’t know I could get my hands on one.” After making a dramatic shift in career choice from teaching to farming, Tucker reflects, “I feel like the grass is greener. I’d rather deal with the stress I cause rather than the stress I have no control over.” Although the farming life is busy, Tucker enjoys the pressure that comes with it, but jokingly confesses “when you farm you just don’t have much time to sit down, and even trying to find a book to read, that would be nice.”
Tucker and his wife Becky have two kids, Lana and Trent, who they have raised with many of the ideals that they continue to value. “There’s all of these little things that I’m trying to instill in the kids, like resiliency, and the flood kind of taught us that.” He later reflects, “We got a lot of good things that we didn’t have before, that we got from the flood.”
His work with the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council could easily be a full time job, Tucker explains, and he commends his fellow Board members: “We have such a great board and there are so many wonderful skills, and I think this is a great start, and I’m super proud of them. They were just willing to jump in.” In the upcoming years, Tucker says that he hopes they have projects on the ground where they can say, “This is what we did and here are some numbers to go with it.”
Ultimately, Tucker hopes to teach people resilience because as he well knows: “Things don’t always go the way you want them to.” After talking with Tucker, it’s easy to see why Monroe County Conservationist Bob Micheel recently referred to Tucker and his wife Becky as “the faces of resiliency in the Coon Creek watershed.”
by Jaden Schultz
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Can you tell us about your job right now and your educational background?
My name is Monique Hassman, I work as a Land Information Officer, or GIS Coordinator, for Vernon County, which means I do digital cartography as a public servant. I worked in this office 14 years ago as a GIS Technician when I was going to school.
I grew up in and around Southeastern Wisconsin; all my family is in and around Milwaukee, so I’m very much a city person. I moved out to this neck of the woods, which I lovingly refer to as the middle of nowhere, in a predominantly Amish community with my partner about 18 years ago.
While I moved out here, I began commuting back to Milwaukee for my master’s and Ph.D. program, so I commuted for 15 years. I’m a first-generation college student, so it was a big deal for me to double major Anthropology and Africology. I double-mastered Anthropology and GIS.
I worked part time in Milwaukee at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in a program called Cultures of Communities. There, we paired university faculty, staff, and student organizations with community organizations to work on social justice projects, and we ran a grant program that supported that collaborative work.
After I graduated with my master’s, I embarked upon a Ph.D. program and studied placemaking in the aftermath of disaster, focusing on a New Orleans community, the Lower Ninth Ward, post-hurricane Katrina. We operated a field school that took college students down to New Orleans every January for service-learning activities and to conduct interviews with people regarding their recovery, or lack thereof.
I just graduated in 2019, it took me 10 years to do that project. It was emotionally very difficult. I made it, even though it sure wasn’t easy. It’s a big deal for my family.
Before my current position, I worked as a Watershed Planner. As a Watershed Planner, I was able to merge working with watershed councils – people like my neighbors, who are mostly farmers and producers who manage land – and GIS. So, I was able to merge two typically very divergent fields and bring them together with modeling. It was truly some of the most exciting, creative work I’ve ever done.
Part of that work was initiating, breathing new life into, supporting, and building capacity for some of the watershed councils we have, including the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council. I don’t have a natural science background or an environmental science background, so sometimes this was a stretch for me since I’m a social scientist by training.
When I was a GIS Technician, I worked in the Land and Water Conservation Department for Vernon County, so I had some exposure, experience, and relationships that made it full circle when I ended up graduating and working full-time.
So, you’ve lived in Coon Valley for about 18 years?
Nope, I’ve never lived in Coon Valley and still don’t live in Coon Valley. I technically live in Crawford County, on the Crawford County line. Across the street from my house is Vernon County, but I live in Crawford County, although I’ve always worked in Vernon County.
I live in Trout Creek, it’s a sub watershed. It’s a part of the Tainter Creek Watershed at the HUC 10 level, which means I’m in the Kickapoo Watershed.
I work with people who ask me, “Do I live in a watershed?” And I always say, “Yes! That’s a great question. Everyone who lives on land lives in a watershed.” These questions are great and they’re okay to ask because they don’t teach us this stuff in school.
I tried to rely upon my anthropology background to show people that the watershed they’re a part of – the watershed they live in – means that they’re a part of a community. That brings them together with their neighbors whether they like it or not, which means that how you manage and treat the land impacts others within your community.
We all have an identity of being a part of a watershed community, and I think that’s really refreshing for some people to realize, because it crosses all walks of life. It pulls us together for better or for worse, which I love.
What would you say is your favorite part of living in the “middle of nowhere,” as you put it?
I am very much into being self-sufficient and having autonomy, and I appreciate the quietness. I really like homesteading activities, which was one of the things that drew me out here. To be able to afford land that I can grow food on, that I can eventually feed myself with, is amazing.
I’ve been a vegetarian since I was about 12 or 13 years old, so being able to grow my own vegetables is really cool.
When I grew up in the Milwaukee area, I joined a community farm called a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). So, I learned how to grow vegetables when I was about 12 years old. I rode my bike to this hippie farm, and I learned how to grow food and ride a tractor and take care of sheep. I would ride my bike 8 miles to this farm, and then ride 8 miles back. I’d skip out of school, camp on weekends…it was awesome. I had, at a very young age, the opportunity to become familiar with agriculture, and had access to a niche realm of agriculture through that unique background. I worked at that CSA farm until we moved out here, so when I graduated, it was very natural transition of continuing to do what I love.
When I came out here, we had sheep and raised and sold wool and vegetables as a side hustle. Living out here allows me to continue my passion of growing food and sharing it with others, donating it to food pantries, putting it by for ourselves through canning and processing. I just love, love, love the work. It’s probably one of my most favorite things to do out here.
Can you give us a brief historical overview of the CCCWC?
There were other, earlier forms of watershed councils in Coon Creek, way back in the day. So, what we’re doing is not unique, but we’re breathing new life into something that hasn’t had it in a long time.
When I started as a Watershed Planner in 2019, one of the things I was tasked with was to help start up watershed councils in the area. At the time, there was one very active watershed council, called Tainter Creek, and that crosses the political jurisdiction of Vernon and Crawford Counties. I had familiarity from attending those meetings and seeing what the culture and climate was of that work. It was a farmer-led group, and it was a little intimidating, but I’ve worked with different groups in West Africa and down South, who are very poor folk but are very tough and spirited, and farmers are no different.
I’m a woman, I have higher education, I come from the city, I’m not local, I have tattoos, I’m not married, I don’t have children…I am not conforming to a lot of the cultural traditions that are around here. But, at the same time, the farmers learn to trust you if your word is good, if you show up, and if you’re a hard worker. So over time I was able to deepen these relationships with some farmers, but I had to watch and pay attention for almost a year before I started talking, initiating, and setting up events – it takes some time to do that.
Before I was a Watershed Planner in 2019, I was an intern for Vernon County’s Land and Water Conservation Department. In 2018, we had historic flooding, and with my background being in flooding and recovery from disasters, I just couldn’t believe that flooding was happening in my own backyard. I was working on my dissertation at the time, talking about Hurricane Katrina, and here I am at home, thousands of miles away from the South, and it’s happening in my own backyard.
This happened on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and so my research became very real in that moment as I experienced things that I had heard about from folks for 10 years. It was a very surreal moment for me. In June 2020 when we started up the CCCWC, I knew that there were compromised dams in the watershed. I was very aware of the flooding that had happened in Coon Valley because we had all lived it. So, I had knowledge on the history and background, and I was familiar with the most recent massive floods.
We reached out to people with phone calls and emails, letting them know that we were starting up this thing – the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council – and invited them to come check it out. We met up on a summer day, and a handful of people showed up. Jim Munsch, a gentleman that I work with through Valley Stewardship Network, who is also a resident of Coon Creek Watershed, came up with an agenda, introductions, and a little background on why we’re initiating this.
We had members of the Tainter Creek Watershed Council come so that they could talk a little about the work that they’ve done in their watershed council to use as a mentorship model. Then, we opened it up for discussion; people stayed around and mingled. Someone came with a historic map and laid it out, and everyone flocked to the map. I love maps. They bring people together. They tell stories. It was awesome.
We had a sign-up sheet and asked if people would be interested in doing this again, and they said yes, there was consensus, so we scheduled the next time and day, and it happened. And then it kept continuing to happen as people kept coming. More and more people kept coming and I just couldn’t believe – I was overwhelmed – with the interest that was generating.
We met in July, and the application for the DATCP Producer-Led Watershed Protection Grant was due September 15th. That’s when there was a lot of thoughtful discussion about the name for the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council and having “CCC” in the name, which pays homage to the Conservation Civilian Corps. The CCC started the initial, large-scale watershed project in Coon Creek, the first in the nation.
One of the things they really liked about the name was the community part. It meant that it wasn’t the Coon Creek Farmer-Led Watershed Council. They wanted to make sure that they have business people there, landowners there, folks that live in the city – they wanted to make sure everyone was involved because it was going to take everyone to create change. It doesn’t matter if you’re farming or if you just own land or if you’re renting it out, we all can do something. The CCCWC has a real collective spirit, so the name “community” was important, and they’ve stayed true to that.
Then, we started to meet inside and began to bring speakers into our meetings, and we got the grant, so it’s just skyrocketed.
One of the things that we try to do while creating this culture of a watershed council is to make sure that it’s not co-dependent on government agents or nonprofit organizations. We try to do this by teaching folks how to resource themselves. We give them encouragement to build their own capacity so that they can take the charge and be engaged in the work.
How would you summarize the work of the CCCWC? What things surprised you about the Council? What do you think the CCCWC’s greatest accomplishment is so far? Where do you see room for improvement?
The council meets on a frequent basis to attend to a variety of regenerative agriculture, conservation, and environmental-related issues. We learn about those issues collectively, and that’s done on a regular basis – even during winter months, they never take a month off.
I was surprised at how well organized the CCCWC came together. The fact that they have such a diversity of folk who are showing up to the table and coming to these meetings has ensured its success. I was very surprised at how well it came together, and it’s sustainable because of that diversity. Also, how respectful they are of one another. Not that I’m surprised by that, but the level of respect for one another, for difference of opinions, for difference in farming practices…that blew me away.
It can be hard these days. We live in very charged times, so working across the aisle and talking to people you might not agree with can be tough but finding commonality in and among the CCCWC has been pleasantly surprising.
There are folks on the CCCWC who I know are so different, but we just don’t go there on those different things, and we’re able to find a commonality and just build off that. So that was most surprising, how diverse it is and how successful it is because of that diversity. Sometimes you can be diverse but not successful because you don’t have those threads holding us together, but that’s not the case here.
There’s always room for improvement, and we’re always in the process of betterment, that’s just inherent human nature. I think part of what we could do better is to continue to expand the membership of folks involved in the council. I think we could make vast improvements on that because I think we’ve hit a plateau of folks who are coming, but I think there’s a lot more folks who I would love to see come in and play a role in what the CCCWC is doing,
What is your favorite part of the CCCWC? What’s the most rewarding aspect that drives you to continue to volunteer your time?
The relationships. I mean, these relationships that have been forged foster such a level of respect and admiration. It feels so good to be working with people who are so positive and so genuine and very authentic in what they know and what they don’t know.
Nancy Wedwick, the president of the CCCWC was at the microphone at one meeting, and she said, “This is some of the most important work I could do in my life. In fact, being a mother has probably been the most important work that I could do, but other than being a mother or a grandmother, being engaged in this watershed council is some of the most important work I could do in my life, because it’s ensuring that the healthy environment is there for my grandchildren and my grandchildren’s grandchildren.”
That is profound stuff right there. When she said that, I was like, “I want to sign up for that, I can learn from her and be part of this initiative. Hopefully it gets contagious and other people want to start up watershed councils.”
I think that the genuine authenticity of these relationships that have been formed over the past year feel good, which makes you want to learn and share. Hands down, the community that has formed is what brings me back and brings a smile to my face. I leave every watershed council meeting smiling ear to ear – just a huge grin. This was a very thoughtful, concerted effort to get people together, and it just feels good to be a part of something that’s generating positivity on the landscape and making an impact both in the immediate and the long-term future. So, I just smile after every meeting.
Some of these people are the funniest people you will ever meet; these folks are great, and I think getting to know members of my community where I otherwise would not have had access to get to know them drives me to just keep coming back.
I feel humbled that I’m even a part of this project because I don’t live there, I’m not a resident of that watershed, I’m like an honorary member. I hope that they realize through this initiative how much knowledge and wisdom there is out there, because so much of the conservation and natural science world relies upon experts and researchers and not on the people who are already there, who know the landscape better than anyone else. They can touch, breathe, feel, and sense the landscape, it’s part of their blood, their essence. I hope that that kind of knowledge gets acknowledged and appreciated, because it doesn’t come out of a university. We don’t have to look to the universities or to the agricultural professionals to show us how to do this. We know a lot of this stuff. We just have to be encouraged and uplifted. This is where we live, eat, and breathe, and this is extremely important work.
by Meira Meadows
Five years ago, Marc Moilien visited Norway, the home of his great-great-grandfather. He walked the same green hills and steep mountainsides as his ancestor did over 100 years ago. As he walked, he thought that his ancestor must have felt at home once he came to Coon Valley, Wisconsin. Similar to Norway, Coon Valley is filled with lush green hills, dense forests, and powerful, rushing creeks.
Marc’s family has lived in Coon Valley for five generations, starting with his great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Norway in 1858. Since then, his family history has been tied and committed to this land. Marc now farms the same land that has been passed down through generations. The land around him is also owned and farmed by extended family members. For him, Coon Valley isn’t just a town; it’s his home, a place he’s never thought to leave.
The Coon Creek Watershed was the first watershed to be put under a microscope during a federal conservation effort to restore the landscape in the 1930s. The area suffered from over a hundred years of farming practices that led to flooding and soil erosion. It was through this project that Marc’s family developed their family value of conservation as an extension of their commitment to the land. Marc’s uncle was one of the first farmers to enlist in the conservation program and his father followed about 10 years later. This project taught Marc’s father how to be conservation-minded, which he passed on to his son. When doing his own work with the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council (CCCWC), Marc is carrying on his family’s legacy of commitment and investment in the land of Coon valley.
The Coon Creek Community Watershed Council is an organization that works as a coalition of farmers and non-farmers in the Coon Creek watershed to improve and restore soil, water, and air. The Council was established in 2021 partially in direct response to a devastating flood in 2018 triggered by massive rainfall and the breach of several PL-566 dams. This flood accrued millions of dollars in damages and long-lasting psychological effects on watershed residents. One of the main goals of CCCWC is to mitigate floods, which will only be worsened due to climate change over the next couple of decades.
Marc attributes the beginning of his involvement with the CCCWC to its President, Nancy Wedwick. “I was told to be there at the first meeting, and I felt I was expected to show up,” Marc explains. Marc’s dedication to this land runs so deep he never hesitated to get involved in saving it. He quickly took on the role of CCCWC historian as people were always asking him questions and seeking his experience in the watershed. As Marc reflects, “I always like to help and be of service.” With his involvement in CCCWC, it seems like he found a group that matches his commitment to the land of Coon Valley. He comments, “Everyone has different skills and we collaborate in the work we do.” This is what characterizes the CCCWC: the coming together of people that have a stake in this watershed and who use their collective skills to make a difference.
As someone whose family has been committed to the land of Coon Valley for so long, Marc hopes the main outcome of his work is to ensure that future generations can still live in Coon Valley. He wants the future generations of his family to have a better future, a future with fewer floods. As Marc explains, “It’s all about slowing down the water, stopping soil erosion, and making things better for the future.” Therefore, Marc’s main goal in his work through the CCCWC is to use the history of this region to make sure, as he states, “not to repeat old mistakes of the past in the watershed and to find new twists to old ideas.” Marc is always on the lookout for an old map of the watershed or a brochure he can use in his work. As Marc explains, “Old maps of the watershed can show how the land has changed.” This is just one example of how he utilizes the vast amount of knowledge that researchers and community members have gathered about the watershed as a resource for protecting it going forward.
The primary way he shares this extensive knowledge about Coon Valley is through “Marc’s History Minute,” which he presents at each monthly council meeting. When I ask Marc about this aspect of his role, he laughs and says, “Oh yeah, I kept finding things I wanted to share and people were asking me all sorts of questions.” These moments are made up of fun facts or historical documents that Marc finds during his research. For example, at the October 2022 council meeting, Marc highlighted just how steep the elevation is in the Coon Creek Watershed: “from the start of the watershed to the Mississippi River, there is a 700-foot drop in elevation.” It can amaze someone just how fast the water is moving through the watershed and the potential of devastating floods in the future due to climate change. However, for Marc and the council, this is just another obstacle they need to overcome in order to preserve this land.
Most recently, Marc has been spending his time exploring a collection of documents donated to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse by long-time Coon Creek Watershed researcher and geomorphologist Stan Trimble when he retired. For Marc, his work is never done. There will always be another document to examine and another aspect of the watershed to learn about. Marc plans to reaffirm his commitment to this land every day, by sticking around to try and save it.
by Haley Gross
Around the bend within a small little nook of Wisconsin lies the Coon Creek Watershed. It encompasses gorgeous scenery of farmland, small towns, valleys, and hills. This area of Wisconsin is truly beautiful, but due to the structure of the landscape, flooding is a major issue. It is one that causes destruction and devastation for many residents in this region. This hidden gem of an area is where Ashley Olson, a Coon Creek Community Watershed Council Member, resides with her family on their dairy farm.
Ashley has been surrounded by agriculture and farming practices her whole life. “I’ve always had a passion for sustainability and farming,” she says. “I grew up on the ridge just outside of Coon Valley on a dairy farm with my parents. It belonged to my grandparents, and before that my great grandparents. After my husband and I got married, we settled in Coon Valley and took over his family’s dairy farm.” Today, Ashley is living back on the ridge on a farm she and her husband bought 12 years ago.
Ashley has been through multiple floods while living in the watershed. “Because I grew up on the ridge we never had to worry about flooding, but when I moved to the valley we were affected by the flooding that came through in 2007 and 2008,” says Ashley. “It affected us pretty deeply. We ended up losing a bunch of pasture and cropland, and we’ve noticed over the years how the water moves through the watershed faster.”
Nobody ever anticipates having to experience the unfortunate impacts of flooding. Though the 2007 and 2008 floodwaters took out much of Ashley’s farm, her home was never flooded. “My father in-law once said, if this house ever gets flooded, most of Coon Valley will be underwater, but that’ll never happen,” she says.
On August 28, 2018 torrential rains took out dams in the watershed, and water rushed into the Village of Coon Valley. The floodwaters were harmful enough to wipe out picnic tables, shelters, barns, and even parts of people’s homes. “In ’18, sure enough, half of Coon Valley was underwater. I remember thinking how my father in-law would just be rolling over if he saw what had happened,” says Ashley. “The buildings had to be demolished on the farm because there was over a foot of water in the barn and 6 inches of water through the house,” she says. By 2018, Ashley was living up on the ridge where it is less likely to become severely flooded. Even so, this flood damaged some of her pastures and cropland.
The impacts of flooding are devastating, but there is always some good that can come out of the bad. “It is awesome to see how people come together and try to help in a time of need,” says Ashley. After the 2018 flood, the school set up an area in the gym for families to get hot meals, there were supplies donated, and people were rescued from their homes with excavators. Ashley and a few friends even went door-to-door helping to save people’s sentimental belongings and assisting in any way that they could. Her actions during the aftermath of the 2018 floodwaters are a true testament to her character.
Based on Ashley’s personal experiences with flooding and living in the watershed, she knew she wanted to be part of a group that has a common goal of implementing sustainable farming practices and other operations to mitigate the impacts of erosion and flooding.
Ashley was the former Vernon County agriculture agent for the UW Division of Extension. Through that, there was a lot of talk about watersheds coming together and forming. “I was attending Tainter Creek Watershed meetings prior to the Coon Creek Watershed and that became of interest to me,” says Ashley. “As the ag agent, I saw interest building around forming another watershed group, or getting together a group of farmers or people.” This is where Ashley came into play to organize and start having an informal meeting.
“We started to have informal meetings in Coon Valley at the park and more people began to show up. It was really all word of mouth,” she says.“I believe in the future of sustainability for generations to come. All of us on the board bring something different to the table and do our jobs,” says Ashley.
Ashley is on the conservation demonstration committee for the Coon Creek Watershed. “My job is to plan events and speakers. I always say that we never can educate ourselves too much,” she says. Ashley shares a personal connection with the farmers and has partnerships through Madison, so she felt as though these relationships would help her be the best fit for this role.
“This is the birthplace of conservation that goes all the way back to the 30s,” says Ashley. “To be able to go out on a hill, and find things like spoons from the people who were putting in these conservation practices way back then, is really unique.” The work of this current community watershed council is significant, as they are continuing to improve the flooding conditions just as their ancestors and people were doing years ago.
With only a year under their belt, the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council is continuing to boom and grow. “I do not know where the watershed council is going from here, but there is a lot of momentum around it and I am just along for the ride.” says Ashley. “People sometimes think the reason we started this watershed council is to completely stop flooding, well we are never going to stop flooding, but we can surely slow the water down.”
by Brandon Schmall
Kevin Traastad is a farmer, soils expert, and watershed council member deeply entwined with education. Whether he is undertaking independent research, community outreach, or simply being interviewed about his work, someone is always learning. That is why the work he does with the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council is so important. He helps to teach and promote soil conservation practices within his community.
The soil conservation practices that Kevin explained to me all revolve around one thing: water. When rain falls upon the land, some of it is absorbed, or infiltrated, into the soil, and the rest of it runs off into the valley below. The more water is infiltrated, the less water runs down the hills to flood the creek that is near and dear to so many. Back in the early 20th century, when the country saw major flooding and soil erosion, soil conservation was eventually identified as a key solution to the problem. When the Nation was looking to experiment with soil conservation practices in the early 1930s, Coon Valley was chosen to be the site of the first watershed project to help develop them, leading to less frequent and less severe floods.
Unfortunately, those problems are starting to return. In the years since that first project, many of the developed practices have fallen to the wayside. In the wake of a devastating flood in 2018, members of the community have started to realize that, as Kevin puts it, “What’s always been there has now come to the forefront.” People started realizing that immediate and collective action was necessary. Through this effort, they formed the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council. When Kevin heard about this, he was happy that people were organizing on the community level to address these issues. Once the first elections were held, Kevin decided to run for a position. “I wanted to make a difference, to use some of the knowledge I’ve gained over my professional career and my desire to see things improve within the watershed. Trying to give back to the community.”
Kevin’s attachment to the community originates from when he was a child. His parents moved to Coon Valley just a few years before he was born. Growing up on a farm, he has fond memories of the valley. He explained the average workday to me, starting by waking up early to pull tobacco crops. After that, in the early afternoon they would relax, playing in the woods or swimming in the creek just to go back to the fields in the evening. This day in the fields models his path through life. After working hard on the farm in his early years, he was inspired to go out and play. Except instead of playing, he was hard at work studying for his degree in soil science and agronomy. After earning the degree and working in the field of soil science for a few years, Kevin moved back to Coon Valley. In the off time he has from his position within the National Resource Conservation Service, he works on his small family farm just as he did as a child.
Kevin’s experience in soil conservation is a great asset to the CCCWC board. He’s led many demonstrations and presentations surrounding these practices, how they’re implemented, and how they help. One of the demonstrations he organized was to show people how to measure infiltration with a simple aluminum can. Measuring how much water the soil can infiltrate provides a solid baseline, allowing the test to be easily done after a practice is implemented and see the improvement directly. While Kevin strongly advocates for everyone to adopt conservation practices, he acknowledges that it is not feasible for everyone. Every farm is different, every landowner is comfortable with adopting some practices and not others. “We’re not trying to tell anybody what to do on their land. It’s ‘here’s some options, have you considered these sorts of things?’”
Kevin hopes that as this project proceeds, every farmer across the watershed will try something new. Conservation practices will become second nature; everyone will determine which ones work best for them. One of Kevin’s goals is for these habits to stick with farmers through the generations. As new landowners move into the valley, they should know what these practices do and why they are important to implement. People like Kevin are invaluable to starting these trends, but it is up to each and every person in the community to keep these ideas alive.
by Deanna Klappert
“That’s what makes us stay. It feels like home. And the community makes you feel like a member of the family… they treat me like I’ve lived here my whole life!”
While Maggie Traastad wasn’t raised in Coon Creek, she has made herself at home here for more than a decade now. A member of the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council (CCCWC), she juggles her time between work, volunteering, and, of course, her family and hobbies. On top of that, she’s also a board member of the local nonprofit Norskedalen Nature & Heritage Center, and she is on the board for Shootin’ For A Cure, which raises money for both scholarships and cancer research. Other than balancing these three nonprofit organizations, Trastaad has a 40-hour-per-week job at a health insurance company based in the Sauk City/Madison area. Oh, and she also teaches Sunday school at her local church. Somehow, Maggie also finds time to scrapbook, camp, and maintain her flower and vegetable garden.
Traastad grew up in River Falls, Wisconsin and moved to Coon Creek thirteen years ago. Ironically, Maggie lived on the top of a hill and never thought twice about flooding when in River Falls. As a child, Maggie’s parents and grandparents instilled their morals and values in her and taught her to be a good person. What she learned from them is that “You don’t get handed everything in life, you work for what you want.” That’s exactly what Maggie has done and continues to do for the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council.
Maggie didn’t directly join the council per se; she married into it. It was more like what she describes as, “her husband’s thing.” Maggie attended her first meeting to gain some knowledge of what goes on in the CCCWC. After sharing her expertise and experience in nonprofit organizations, the council immediately knew that Maggie was a key individual that needed to stick around. Maggie sits as secretary on the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council as of March 2022, but has been involved with the council since the get-go. Her experience from working in larger cities as well as with other non-profit organizations has been a key skill for the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council. For instance, Maggie signed the council up to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. She communicates with members, makes pamphlets, tailors their agenda, and “gets all the jobs that the others don’t want to do.”
“I think originally people thought we were gonna solve the flooding issue, I mean that’s not what we are here for… We’re here to mitigate some of it.” Maggie’s and the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council’s current goal is to make known the issues that they are going through. She says, “Right now, I think it’s just getting people aware of who we are and what we are doing.” Overall, the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council is trying to preserve the legacy of watershed conservation that began almost a century ago. The land is so historically significant to those who live in the community.
Maggie Traatad not only has these significant roles in the community, but she also has a very important role that might be overlooked. Traastad tries to keep up the morale of the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council. She tries to keep the momentum of high attendance going so that people don’t lose hope in trying to mitigate the flooding issues.
In 2018, Coon Valley had one of its worst floods. It did not hit the Trastaad property lightly, but they did luck out a little bit. “I mean, I remember it in detail… It started raining that night and I woke up in the middle of the night and I actually heard water running in the house. I went downstairs and we had water running, it was clear water… we had so much rain, the ground was so saturated, we found out we had a crack in our basement floor, we had water come up through the crack, and run through the basement.” She and her husband, Kevin, proceeded to move all their furniture upstairs. The crest of the creek was a mere 20 feet from the edge of their house. Now, how did they luck out, you may ask? Her neighbors’ basements were flooded to the top of the stairs. Their basements were completely underwater: not clear water, but dirty creek water.
Maggie and her husband still keep the stake in the ground that marked the water levels of the flood. They both still go around it when mowing the lawn; they just can’t seem to remove it even four years after the flood. To this day, whenever there is thunder or lightning her dog associates it with the 2018 flood. Prior to the flood, the dog didn’t have a care in the world for storms but now associated it with the horror of the 2018 flood. To help just a little, the Traastads bought her a “thunder shirt” that seems to calm her.
Why stay in the community with constant flooding issues? Well, “It’s where I live, and the beauty of this area.” Right past the Traastad pasture the creek rapids run, and it is very calming. Not only that, but Maggie has high hopes for the success of the community and its goals. “We have the right mix of people right now to really have the momentum to get us to where we want to be.”
by Sydney Widell
Nancy Wedwick was with her daughter and eighteen-month-old grandson the first time he waded in Coon Creek. It was late August 2022, and they were near the place Nancy had come to swim throughout her own childhood in Coon Valley. Nancy remembers watching the wonder spread across her grandson’s face as he dipped his hands in the water.
Exactly four years earlier, the creek bank where Nancy and her family were gathered would have been submerged by the 2018 floods that devastated Southwestern Wisconsin. As flooding worsens in the watershed Nancy and seven generations of her family have called home, her concerns for her grandson’s future inspired her to help organize the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council, a non-profit she now leads as president.
“How can I look at [my grandson’s] face and not try to do everything I can, knowing that he’s going to grow up into this?” Nancy reflects. “This stuff matters and we need to be very serious and thoughtful about it.”
Nancy began to think more seriously about what a sustainable future in her watershed might look like after 2018’s catastrophic flooding and the decade of increasingly extreme floods which lead to it. In the months following the 2018 flood, Nancy, along with neighbors up and down the watershed, navigated the fraught and painful recovery process with limited outside aid and the grim recognition that severe floods were only going to become more frequent with climate change.
“We were sitting around wondering, ‘What can we do? Is there something we can do to help with this flooding?’” Nancy recalls. “Everyone has a part to play.”
When she learned her community could organize as a watershed council, Nancy saw an opportunity for neighbors to come together to address their flooding concerns. She brings her experience as an educator and department leader at the Wisconsin Challenge Academy, background in family and employment law, academic training in leadership studies and lifelong love of Coon Valley to her role as council president.
While building flood resilience may be one of the Council’s immediate goals, Nancy ultimately sees her work as part of a movement to create collaborations within and across watersheds, and to imagine a safer and more sustainable future for her community. She envisions the council as a space that welcomes everyone who cares about or calls the Coon Creek Watershed home.
“This is a problem that takes everyone to solve,” Nancy says. “We are going to include everybody, no matter where they are on this journey. I don’t see any other way.”
One of Nancy’s priorities as president is enhancing watershed literacy, which she describes as an awareness of the relationships linking people to each other and to water across space and through generations. She believes that community efforts to care for land and water are rooted in those connections.
For Nancy, coming into that awareness has helped her to see the hills where she grew up in a completely new way.
“When it did hit me, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” she says. “If you’re not doing the right things on the land, you’re just sending more water downhill. I’ve since learned things looking out at my own land—seeing the gullies and how water actually moves.”
From her land, Nancy can also see the contour strips and terraces that stretch across the neighboring farm fields. They mark the first soil conservation project in the country, as well as her community’s ongoing commitment to protecting land and water.
The Coon Creek Community Watershed Council builds on the tradition that began with the national watershed planning initiative centered in Coon Valley in the 1930s. Nancy’s approach to environmental stewardship is guided by the lessons in cooperation and innovation her relatives learned during that time.
Nancy’s great-great grandmother was 19 when she traveled alone from Norway to Coon Valley. When she arrived, she married another Norwegian immigrant, and the two of them farmed near the banks of Coon Creek. The other side of Nancy’s family settled on a ridgetop, not far from where Nancy lives now.
“Topsoil was getting washed down from one side of great grandparents down probably right to the property of the other ones, unbeknownst to any of them that one day their children would marry,” Nancy says.
Nancy senses that the close ties between ridge and valley-dwellers were essential to the Coon Creek Watershed’s ability to collectively respond to the soil erosion crisis in the 1930s.
“It was a thriving community,” Nancy says. “People have responsibility, they have duty. And people came together.…This was a community effort.”
The cooperative soil conservation effort in Coon Valley will be reaching its 100th anniversary by the time Nancy’s grandson is a teenager. When Nancy imagines what a thriving Coon Valley community could look like for him in that time, she pictures a place where land use practices that reduce flood impacts are widespread and easily accessed, and where residents reconnect around watershed values.
“I cannot leave this earth knowing that at some point I did not do every single little thing I could do to make this a sustainable, safe, better place,” Nancy says. “It’s in my blood. It’s what I’m supposed to do.”