Flooding could rival levels seen in 2008

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Neil Johnson
Thursday, April 18, 2013

— State and local authorities say they are bracing for Rock River water levels that could rival the flooding of 2008.

Periods of heavy rainfall continue to soak the area, and 3 to 4 inches of rain were forecast to fall between Wednesday and Friday.

Meanwhile, the swollen Rock River continued to take the brunt of runoff. It is filled past its brink, submerging yards and roadways along South River Road in Janesville and other low spots along the riverbanks in Rock County.

Officials are expecting the Rock River to reach 12.3 feet or higher at Afton by Friday. That level of flooding has not been seen since May and June 2008, when the river peaked at 13.5 feet at Afton.

Rock County Sheriff's Capt. Jude Maurer and Tod Pritchard, a spokesman for state emergency management said officials are bracing for floods that could bring conditions nearly as severe as 2008 flooding.

Upstream of Rock County, Jefferson County officials on Wednesday submitted a declaration of emergency to state officials as the Rock and Crawfish rivers there have overtopped banks and flooded nearby low areas. There, officials have 50,000 sandbags ready to go.

Those floodwaters and runoff from rain-saturated areas further north will flow through the Rock River's 3,500-square-mile watershed over the next few days. All that water is on its way south through Rock County, even as heavy rains are expected to continue throughout southern Wisconsin.

That means residents and businesses along the river should be ready for the potential of major flooding in the Janesville area by today or Friday, officials said.

Maurer said indications of heavy flooding are preliminary, but authorities are getting prepared for a significant number of road closures and potential evacuation of homes in spots close to the river.

"The next 48 hours will be interesting," Maurer said Wednesday in a roadside interview with The Gazette.

Maurer was surveying flooded low spots on South River Road, where the Rock River has topped its banks and is now submerging part of the road with ankle- to shin-deep water in two spots.

Rock County authorities have placed roadblocks on South River Road and on a slew of roads along Lake Koshkonong in Newville and the towns of Milton and Fulton, where Maurer said river levels have risen to critical levels.

No residents had been evacuated Wednesday in those areas or on South River Road, sheriff's officials said, but Maurer and Pritchard said evacuation remains a possibility. They advised that residents in low spots along the river should monitor the water and be ready to leave.

Meanwhile, county and state emergency management officials were coordinating a network of sandbagging stations and readying emergency pumps for use in residential areas that could be hit hardest by flooding.

In Janesville, interim City Manager Jay Winzenz said the city's parks and public works departments are preparing to close street accesses to Traxler and Riverside parks. The city could close some part of North Parker Drive near the Memorial Street Bridge within the next 24 to 48 hours if rainfall and river level predictions hold true.

Meanwhile, city staff are planning emergency flood meetings Thursday and Friday to discuss the city's response to the specter of flooding, Winzenz said.

Winzenz said city workers have started to fill sandbags, and crews planned to have as many as 12,000 bags ready by today or Friday.

He said the city plans meetings with downtown businesses along Main Street to discuss how they should proceed if water tops the river wall downtown and overwhelms storm sewer infrastructure that the city has tried to bolster in the wake of the 2008 floods.

Karla Simpson, office manager at the Brennan-Steil law firm at Main and Milwaukee streets, said the firm's three pumps were keeping up Wednesday. The lower areas of the basement had about 2 inches of water, she said.

"We really don't expect any loss or damage at this point," she said.

She said the business appreciates the city sandbags that line the river behind its building, which is a low area along Main Street.

On South River Road on Wednesday, earthworms inched east across a dry stretch of the road, fleeing a sodden patch of grass near the river as rain fell around them. They were headed for higher ground.

Just south, John Crank and his wife, June, were trying to decide whether to stay put at their South River Road home or relocate to their daughter's house in Janesville for a few days.

About 150 feet to the west, the Rock River rushed past, licking the side of the road. Just north, police had blocked the road with barricades where water stood ankle-deep.

The water mirrored the gray sky as lightning flashed and thunder rumbled.

Crank, 89, has lived at his white ranch home along the river since 1959. They have seen several floods that have caused the river to swamp South River Road. They've seen the river come up into their yard a few times. The last time that happened was 2008.

But Crank said he knows recent rains have put the river once again at a tipping point. His basement is starting to fill with water.

He said that only happens when the ground is saturated, and the river is ready to heave over the banks. It means only one thing: "It's the river coming in," Crank said.

Denny VanCleve, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Sullivan, said April likely will go down as the wettest on record.

Before Wednesday, the area has seen over 4 inches of rain since the start of the month. With more rain still on the way, Wednesday's rainfalls alone totaled nearly an inch in some spots, according to Gazette weather data.

VanCleve said that having so much rainfall in such a short time, particularly early in the season as snow and ice runoff are still working through the Rock River watershed, may not bode well for the rest of the year.

There's still the late spring and early summer rainy season, which in other recent years has pushed the river to up to its brink, VanCleve said.

"It's just a lot of rain," VanCleve said. "Hopefully, we'll get a breather."

Last updated: 10:24 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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