Democratic Gov. Tony Evers wants every local government in Wisconsin—ranging from Milwaukee (population 594,548) to the Village of Lowell (population 253) in Dodge County—to develop a climate change response.

The official summary of Evers’ 2021-23 state budget describes that mandate this way:

“Require a comprehensive plan be developed by municipalities to address climate change, require that local hazard mitigation plans include climate change, and require communities throughout the state to include climate change in their community health improvement assessment and plans.”

The mandate may not become law. Republican legislative leaders last week vowed to ignore much of the new spending, programs and mandates proposed by Evers and pass their own, much different budget.

There is also disagreement between leaders of local governments. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which represents cities and villages, supports Evers’ proposal; the Wisconsin Towns Association does not.

In his budget address, Evers said every Wisconsin resident “has experienced the effects of climate change” and “increased flooding caused in large part by climate change, has cost Wisconsin communities, businesses, farmers, and families millions of dollars.”

Evers said his budget includes $30 million for “proactively floodproofing, ensuring public safety and … help municipalities address at-risk properties and infrastructure with programs that help build adaptable roads and infrastructure, and restore wetlands to prevent catastrophic flooding.”

Curt Witynski, deputy director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said, “Cities and villages are adapting and adjusting to climate change, and more than a few are engaging in climate change planning. They must.”

Changes include “adjusting the standards by which they construct culverts, stormwater facilities, and other infrastructure to handle more frequent and more intense rainstorms,” Witynski said, adding:

“It’s not only Madison and Milwaukee who are doing so... Cross Plains and other small communities in the southwest that have faced substantial flooding in recent years are making adjustments to their land use plans, wastewater systems, and infrastructure standards.”

But Michael Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association that represents the smallest local governments, said it opposes a statewide order to help mitigate climate change.

“For some municipalities it is a wise choice to proactively discuss and craft response plans for the potential impacts of climate change [but] we also feel that engaging in this exercise should be the choice of the town and not mandated by the state,” Koles said.

“A more appropriate role for the state would be to provide education, including how a plan for an urban town with significant stormwater infrastructure differs from a town with a few hundred people and a couple of problem culverts that could be overwhelmed during an uncharacteristic storm event,” Koles added.

The League of Municipalities has documented increasingly frequent downpours that overwhelmed infrastructures:

Watertown got 8.6 inches of rain over two days; Cross Plains, 15.3 inches over two days; Middleton and Verona, 11 inches of rain in a day; LaValle, 7 inches of rain in a day; two Reedsburg “100-year floods” in 10 years, and Ashland, 6.4 inches of rain over a weekend that overwhelmed sewer mains constructed more than 100 years old and sanitary pipes more than 56 years old, and closed beaches and hurt Lake Superior fishing.

The League said UW-Madison scientist David Liebl found that the number of rainstorms exceeding 5 inches statewide increased from an average of 1.6 events per year between 1950-’75 to 3.1 events per year between 2001-’14.

“The larger rain events cause the most danger and property damage from flooding in our urban areas,” Liebl said. “ Municipalities are struggling to cope with these changes.”

Because climate change poses a “serious risk,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway welcomed the governor’s mandate.

“Our job as public officials is to protect the public interest; including climate impacts into existing plans is an obvious but important step. Madison has already done robust planning around mitigating climate change, and is increasing our efforts to plan for climate resilience,” Rhodes-Conway said.

She listed some of those changes: Renewable electricity for 74% of government operations. Shifting the city’s vehicle fleet to electric vehicles. Building LEED certified municipal buildings. Investing in a new bus rapid transit system. Requiring electric vehicle charging stations in new parking developments. Better flood protection planning.

“We are doing a lot, but we also have more work to do,” Rhodes-Conway said.

Steven Walters has covered the Capitol since 1988. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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