Watershed managers keep your basement from flooding — extreme weather swings are making it harder

This summer, photos of Minnehaha Falls reduced to a trickle made the rounds as Minnesotans took stock of a particularly intense drought in the region. But those photos also help to illustrate what makes Tiffany Schaufler’s job challenging.

She’s project and land manager for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, which uses dams and other means to manage water levels in Lake Minnetonka, the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes and Minnehaha Creek. In recent years, rainfall patterns have changed and the region has seen more extreme weather swings, like the drought that dried up Minnehaha Falls. That’s made her job less predictable.

“As water managers, we’re tasked with trying to reduce flooding and reduce pollution. That’s what you’re tasked with, but what you’re given is how much rain falls from the sky and a landscape that was developed over a century ago,” Schaufler said on this week’s Climate Cast. “A lot of these homes were developed during the Dust Bowl, when it was the driest of times, and now we’re coming out of the wettest of times.”

People look at a waterfall.
Parkgoers explore Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis, July 21, 2021, when the creek’s water levels were unusually low due to drought.
Tim Evans for MPR News

“So now there’s this conflict of surface or groundwater flooding happening and people being like, ‘I understand climate change, but my basement is flooding and who’s going to do something about it?’” she said.

The watershed district has partnered with the National Weather Service to get more granular, real time forecasts so it can better manage lake and creek levels. But Schaufler said we may be approaching a time when flooding can’t be prevented, and those low-lying areas that were developed during the Dust Bowl need to be returned to their natural state.

Hear more on this week’s episode using the audio player above or by subscribing to the Climate Cast podcast.

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