The high flood waters and pouring rain that wreaked havoc on homes and businesses around Dane County and elsewhere in the state didn’t spare the area’s nature preserves.
Parts of the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in Middleton were dramatically reshaped after floodwaters wiped out asphalt trails, knocked down bridges, uprooted trees and eroded a hillside, causing nearly $2.5 million in damage.
The rolling hills covered in prairie grass and oak forests surrounding Pheasant Branch Creek are a beloved respite from suburban life for city residents and visitors from around Dane County. The quiet is broken only by the people walking, jogging or cycling along its trails to connect with nature, and many area residents said they were heartbroken to hear of the extensive damage.
“People were near tears, just saying how it was such a special place,” said Lloyd Eagan, president of the Friends of Pheasant Branch Conservancy group.
A tree-covered hill that sloped down to the creek is gone. The hill’s sandy soil was washed away by the flood, taking down trees — roots and all — and leaving nothing but a vertical bluff.
Repairing the devastated creek corridor, which is bounded by Highway 12 to the west and Century Avenue to the east, will take months, if not longer, said Department of Public Lands, Recreation and Forestry director Matt Amundson. But right now long-term restoration plans aren’t in the works, Amundson said, because the city is still working in emergency mode.
The corridor, with its saturated soil and broken trees, is not safe for visitors or even restoration volunteers at this point, Amundson said, and the creek, which is a major storm water outlet for Middleton and empties into Lake Mendota, is at risk of continued flooding. The trees that were uprooted and the broken-off branches and leaves can clog the creek, preventing the water from flowing through at the needed rate to move water out of the area.
Middleton hired four contractors to remove the fallen trees and debris, Amundson said. Workers wrestled with full trees, some of which were dozens of feet tall, while maneuvering over wet and sandy ground along the creek.
To pay for the reconstruction and restoration, the city is using emergency contingency funds the city budgets for and has also submitted an assessment to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to apply for assistance.
Volunteer days will also be coordinated to aid recovery of the area, Amundson said, but it needs to be deemed safe before that happens.
Eagan said that her organization has already offered to coordinate volunteer cleanup efforts. In the meantime, the group has helped to keep the public out of the area and off the path.
Some people had been crossing over the yellow caution tape at the entrance points to the trail, Eagan said, so the friends group, with the support of Amundson, placed signs explaining the restricted access and placed boards across bridges to further deter spectators.
The corridor is important to the community, Eagan said, because of its beauty and its versatility.
“It’s a transportation area. … It’s also a very peaceful place in the spring. It’s great for warbler watching,” Eagan said.
Peace and quiet are reasons people visit the conservancy, but Tanya North said people also come to the area because it is a free and enjoyable place to spend time with friends.
“You always see people in groups here. It’s a great place to socialize,” North said.
Middleton also worked to make the area accessible for many people. When the creek would run high, people used to follow a trail that led them to ford across it or skip across the creek on stones. Many less-mobile people were left without ways to cross, so about a decade ago, the city paved the trail and built bridges to cross the creek.
Those bridges have been lifted up, turned and splintered as high waters made the creek look more like a river.
“The bridges are going to take months, if not a year, to be put back in place,” Amundson said.
North and her husband, Brian, moved to Middleton because of the conservancy and the expansive escape to nature it provides, they said. It was hard for them to know so much was destroyed.
“Closing the path (in the corridor) was a disadvantage,” Brian North said. “But I’m pleased by how quickly Middleton came out to fix some of it.”
Shortly after the storm, the city laid new gravel on long stretches of the pathways of the city-owned portion of the conservancy, Amundson said. The northern part of the conservancy, including Frederick’s Hill, is owned by Dane County.
The fixes were covered by allocations in the city’s budget for trail maintenance. A week after storms ravaged the city, some signs of the erosion on the paths could be seen, but the surface was for the most part flat.
“What we tried to do is restore portions so people can get out to recreate,” Amundson said.
Laurie Cray, a nearby resident who walks her dog Daisy in the conservancy almost daily, said she was disheartened by the damage. While walking there last week, she said it was unusually empty for a sunny day. She attributed that to the flood damage afflicting the county and state, but she said the numbers of people that regularly flock to the park shows why natural areas are worth preserving.
“It just goes to show you the power of green space,” Cray said. “When there’s green space, people get out and use it.”