KRONENWETTER — Homeowners who sloshed around in their damaged basements this past spring could have been spared the experience if former Kronenwetter leaders had heeded warnings from two reports that predicted flooding.
In the reports, one from 1985 and another from 1994, engineering firms told Kronenwetter officials that they had to closely regulate construction on land on the north side that was prone to high groundwater. The land later was developed as the Meadowood and Golden Pond subdivisions, and the town never installed groundwater-removal systems recommended in the reports.
The town incorporated as a village in 2002, and today’s leaders say they weren’t involved in Kronenwetter government when the reports were issued and never were aware of the recommendations.
Both reports were included in files of information submitted to Village Board members after residents reported problems this spring.
After Kronenwetter was warned of flooding danger, dozens of homes, including the two subdivisions, were built in the area near Highway XX and Pine Road.
Before any construction could begin, contractors had to pump water out of the ground in a process called dewatering — a common practice for construction projects in Kronenwetter’s sandy soil, which temporarily drains the water table so that foundations can be poured.
This spring, the decades-old flooding predictions came true when more than 40 residents of the subdivisions reported wet basements and overworked sump pumps.
“Did it not cross their minds that after this water is pumped out, some day it’s going to come back?” said Mike Johnson, a resident of the neighborhood who has spent thousands of dollars having his finished basement dried out. “The (village) should have done something about that or made the builders and developers do something.”
The 1994 report said the area “frequently experiences high groundwater conditions, resulting in the flooding of basements and homes.”
Engineers and the Marathon County Soil and Water Conservation District recommended that town officials “take positive steps to prevent the problem from worsening by enforcing zoning ordinances, which will prevent further development in the problem areas.”
The 1985 study provided similar guidance and recommended that officials consider a permanent drainage system as “one of the best long-term solutions.” The 1994 report quoted a $921,460 price for an underground drainage system.
About 80 inches of snow fell on the Wausau area during the 2010-2011 winter and 15 cumulative inches of rain fell during the spring, both numbers topping the 30-year average for the region, according to data from the Wisconsin State Climatology Office. In the wet seasons’ wake, homeowners in the Golden Pond and Meadowood subdivisions, built in the early 2000s, reported water seeping into basements, sump pumps struggling to keep up and standing water in roadside ditches.
It was the first time Johnson had ever seen more than cobwebs inside the sump pump pit in the basement of his ranch-style home. The pump kicked on for the first time in the spring and eventually was overwhelmed trying to pump 210 gallons of water a minute out of the basement.
Why no warning?
Johnson said he never was informed of the area’s frequently high groundwater levels. Looking at the sandy content of soil on other lots surrounding his new home in 2004, Johnson thought flooding wouldn’t be an issue.
“I thought any rain or melting snow would go right through that,” he said. “What I obviously couldn’t see is that water coming from above isn’t the problem.”
Village officials have struggled for months to settle on a fix for the flooding problems that developed in the two subdivisions this spring, hesitant to commit to a tax on neighborhood residents for installation of a stormwater system. They spent thousands of dollars pumping water out of a nearby pond, hoping groundwater would flow into the pond instead of basements, as a temporary solution.
Recent studies have suggested that a stormwater system wouldn’t actually fix the issue, but underground pipes to carry water away from the area might.
Village Board President Judi Akey, who was elected in April 2009, said she had not seen the two engineering studies commissioned by town officials. Akey said she wasn’t prepared to say what the village should or will change about design of future residential areas.
“I’m not an engineer. But obviously, there is going to be specific attention paid to this question in any future building,” Akey said. “As far as foreseeing this, I can’t comment on what anybody should have foreseen.”
Akey said developers in the area also should be scrutinized because of the scattershot problems in both subdivisions. Houses on the same street have a variety of water issues, from none at all to standing water in basements.
“There are so many issues to be addressed that we have to figure out what the solution would be,” Akey said. “We have to find an approach that actually will help.”
Question of fairness
To residents without flooding problems, a tax on the entire area for any utility work is an unfair step. Bruce Sinkula lives about three blocks from Johnson but hasn’t had a single problem with groundwater seeping into his basement in six years.
“You know, I feel sorry for anyone who’s having issues,” Sinkula said. “But I didn’t buy that house. I’d even be willing to share some of the cost (if stormwater sewers were installed), but splitting it equally isn’t right.”
Sinkula said his contractor commented that other homes or condos in the neighborhood were built too low for the groundwater levels. Sinkula said his house’s lowest elevation is about 7 feet higher than other houses in the area.
“There were builders from all over the place in here during construction,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t know the area.”
The village already spent $35,000 to install a pump at a pond close to the intersection of Highway XX and Pine Road. Residents with water issues reported that the temporary solution helped, but they’re concerned about what will happen in the spring.
Bob and Mary Judell moved into a condo in the neighborhood in 2006. They were living in Santa Barbara, Calif. but wanted to be closer to their grandchildren in central Wisconsin.
They loved the layout and location of their new home. The water seeping into their finished basement this spring was less appreciated.
“I don’t know who the principal offender is,” Bob Judell said. “If you sell real estate, you’re supposed to indicate all the problems. Certainly, the Kronenwetter water situation must have been known by someone.”
Judell said if he had any indication that groundwater levels could cause flooding, he and his wife would have looked for another place to live.
“We liked this unit the best at the time,” he said. “But we’d be better off somewhere else now.”
Johnson, who was hoping to downsize and sell his home, feels stuck. It’s unlikely he can find a buyer willing to deal with the threat of annual flooding — a problem for which he still holds past village officials responsible.
He’s tired of waiting for a plan from current village officials, too.
“I’m just a homeowner, not a developer, not an engineer, not a hydrogeologist,” Johnson said. “That’s why (the village) has to take responsibility. They issue the permits.”