Eighteen people from across Winona County got together last week to discuss how and whether climate change was affecting the local area and what, if anything, local communities should do about it. Increased rainfall and flooding worried many attendees.

Citizens debate rural climate change



The flooding in Southeast Minnesota is not going to get any better. That was perhaps the biggest takeaway from a three-day discussion of how climate change is affecting and will affect Winona County and what local communities should do about it.

Two Minneapolis-based organizations, the non-partisan Jefferson Center and the environmentalist Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), recruited a demographically representative group of ordinary people to form a "citizen jury" to discuss climate change last week. Eighteen people from across the county listened to presentations from experts on various topics before crafting a five-page message to neighbors and policy makers on what the community needed to know about climate change and what, if anything, needed to be done.

The event organizers were not exactly preaching to the choir.

The earth's climate goes through phases, said Minnesota City resident and citizen juror Sharon Miller. "I think our emissions do have an affect on it … Maybe we should get rid of the emissions, but then what will take place of emissions?" she asked. Environmental destruction is just part of human civilization, she stated.

"I know it's changing but I don't think they've necessarily figured out why," rural Winona resident Scott Montgomery said of climate change on the first day of the event. "The impact it has on the community? Deal with it. Don't like it? Move."

While some event goers were skeptical, information on flooding seemed to get their attention.

"I came here totally open-minded. I've had my own views for years … but, as my kids told me, 'Maybe you should just shut up and listen,'" Pleasant Hill Township resident Harvey Krage said of his approach to the citizen jury. Krage explained that he tends to be dismissive of dire warnings about climate change. Information he received at the event that the statewide average temperature has increased an average of two degrees Fahrenheit per century did not seem that bad to him. "The thing that worries me the most is the increase in precipitation," he stated on the second day of the event. "That's alarming. Because I lived through the 2007 flood."

Krage was referring to a presentation from University of Minnesota meteorologist and climatologist Mark Seeley on the historical trends in Minnesota weather and in Southeast Minnesota weather.

It is raining more these days; and big storms, especially, are more common, Seeley told the citizen jury. Seeley cited studies from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), its subsidiary, the National Weather Service (NWS), and from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He pointed to records of average annual precipitation that show that since 1900, the trend line for average annual precipitation in Southeast Minnesota has increased by 0.44 inches per decade, or 4.4 inches per century. He also highlighted the historical records for "mega rains," which are rainfalls of six-inches or greater covering an area of at least 1,000-square miles with an epicenter of eight inches or more of precipitation. Since 1900, there have been 10 mega rains in Minnesota, according to Seeley. Half of those have occurred in just the last 15 years. Three of them hit Winona County: the infamous flood of 2007 when most of Winona County got 14 inches of precipitation over two days; and two mega-rains that grazed Winona County in 2004 and 2010, dropping 5-7 inches of rain over the county and even more rain in neighboring counties, according to Seeley's presentation.

Jurors also listened to presentations on the big uptick in home insurance claims in Minnesota in the last two decades by an insurance company official, the potential impacts of climate change on agriculture by the local county extension educator, and a presentation from a registered lobbyist for the solar power industry on the opportunities for renewable energy development. Their final recommendations to the community included ideas and information from those presentations, but the impact of flooding was one of their most prominent recommendations.

The citizen jury's call to action focused on land use practices for both urban and rural property owners that would help slow down flood waters and related runoff: rain gardens, stream bank restoration, pervious surfaces in cities, and more perennials and buffer strips on farms and public lands. Within individual watersheds, whenever wetlands are drained or new pavement is put in, those changes should be offset by flood mitigation efforts such as storm water retention infrastructure and conservation practices, the jury advised. "Healthy shorelines and streams are more resilient to flood events," the jury's report stated.


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