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Coping With Flooding

Information on this page will help you keep your family safe in a flooding emergency and minimize damage to your property.

What Can I Do?

In addition to the bulleted items listed below for assistance during flood events, there are also actions and information for flood events listed under each of the tabbed items.

Safe Drinking Water

Assure the Safety of Your Drinking Water

For people who use private well water

Private well owners should suspect their drinking water is contaminated by floodwaters if:

  • the well casing becomes inundated;
  • there's a change in taste, color or sediment in your water; or
  • your well does not have a deep casing and you are near areas that have been flooded.

Wells located in pits and basements are especially susceptible to contamination.

If you feel your well has become contaminated with floodwaters:

For people who get their water from public water supplies

Listen and watch your local media to learn if your municipal water supply has been contaminated from flooding. You will be instructed to switch to a safe supply or boil the water before using.

Public Roads/Highways

Municipal roads emergency maintenance and construction

If you are a municipal roads manager, please contact the DNR transportation liaison for your county. The DNR is committed to working with municipalities to provide quick turnaround on decisions and consultation. During a flood emergency and times of imminent danger, we understand that some temporary repairs need to take place immediately to open roadways. Those activities can be reviewed after the fact and may still require appropriate authorization for activities in waterways and wetlands. Also see this list of flood damage funding sources for municipal road stream crossings.

Flood Cleanup

Manage debris and waste after the flood

After floodwaters recede, homeowners and others face the often daunting chore of disposing of waterlogged debris. It is important to dispose of debris quickly but safely, protecting human health and the environment in both the short and long term.

The bottom line: don't burn or bury debris, recycle where possible, separate hazardous materials and landfill the rest. Above all, be safe.

The DNR has compiled information on how to dispose of specific materials and items. Visit Cleaning up storm debris and Storm debris cleanup on lakes, rivers and wetlands for more information. You can also contact local authorities to find out if there are special arrangements or resources for cleaning up and disposing of storm and flood debris.

If you return to your home or farm and have discovered a large hazardous substance release (fuel oil tank rupture, agricultural chemicals spilled, etc.), call Wisconsin DNR's 24-Hour Spill Emergency Hotline at 1-800-943-0003. For more information on spill reporting visit Hazardous substance spills and read Wisconsin Spill Reporting Requirements [PDF].

Sandbag disposal

Options to assure that full or emptied sandbags are handled properly:

  • full biodegradable (jute, burlap or other biodegradable) sandbags can be used as fill where placement is not prohibited; they can also be disposed at a municipal solid waste landfill or a construction and demolition landfill;
  • plastic or non-degradable sandbags require a written DNR approval prior to disposal at a place other than municipal solid waste landfill or a construction and demolition landfill; and
  • remove sand from bags and properly dispose of the bags in a municipal solid waste landfill or a construction and demolition landfill.

Please contact the landfill in advance to make sure they will accept the sandbags and to obtain cost estimates for disposal.

Reuse of full sandbags

  • Full sandbags of both biodegradable and non-biodegradable material may be reused at other flood sites and may be reused to construct permanent earthen structures.
  • Sandbags contaminated with petroleum products, transformer oil or other contaminants are not considered exempt solid waste. For information on disposal of sandbags known to be contaminated with petroleum products, transformer oils or other regulated substances, contact your DNR waste management specialist.

Sand from sandbags

  • Use caution when reusing sand that came in contact with flood waters as the material may contain more bacteria than normal soil.
  • Avoid placing sand in playgrounds, sandboxes or other areas of direct human contact soon after removal from bags. Bacteria will dissipate with time and exposure to the elements. Sand could be stockpiled and used for winter road sand, fill, concrete or mortar sand or other uses.

Farm Flooding

Manage Livestock Manure to Avoid Runoff Into Streams

Flooding can increase the risk that manure will run off into streams and rivers, causing pollution and potentially fish kills and costing the farmer a valuable free fertilizer. Rather than spreading on already water-logged fields or running the risk of getting their equipment stuck or damaging the soil structure, farmers who find their manure storage is full or nearly full during times of flooding are encouraged to contact their local conservation department to learn about alternative storage sites or options for safely spreading the manure. Large-scale livestock farms with DNR permits can contact their DNR regional contact. Manure should never be allowed to run-off into surface waters.

Milk Transport Disruption

During an emergency when regular milk pick-ups are disrupted, the following information should be considered by producers. Milk can be a hazardous substance if it is discharged to a surface water (stream, lake, pond, river), where it can cause biological hazards. Milk must be kept out of all surface waters. DO NOT discharge milk in a way that it may reach surface waters. Milk can be land applied to an upland field at a rate at which any other liquid waste would be applied.

You must report a hazardous substance discharge that reaches surface water. Call Wisconsin DNR's 24-Hour Spill Emergency Hotline at 1-800-943-0003.

Recreation Safety

Play Safe on Beaches, Lakes and Rivers

After heavy rain and flooding, beaches and other recreational waters can become polluted by sewage, animal wastes, petroleum products, fertilizers and other contaminants. Play it safe if you plan to go swimming, canoeing, boating or fishing after heavy rain and flooding.

  • Check with local health authorities on water quality conditions and get updates on Great Lakes beach water quality and more than 100 inland beaches before you go. Visit About the Wisconsin Beach Health Database for more information.
  • Avoid swimming or other contact with surface water until sufficient time has passed after the heavy rainfall or flooding for water levels to return to normal. This may take anywhere from 24 hours to several days or weeks, depending on the severity of flooding.
  • Choose beaches away from developed areas and enclosed bays and harbors with little water circulation.
  • Look for pipes along the beach that drain storm water runoff from the streets, and don't swim near them.
  • Do not swim in beach water that is cloudy or smells bad. Never swim in areas of lakes and ponds where there's visible blue-green algae and keep children from playing in the water. Animals should not drink or swim in the water.
  • Pay attention and follow advisory signs.
  • Keep your head out of the water.
  • Wash up or shower thoroughly with soap and clean water after contact or swimming in any surface waters, regardless of whether they are flooded or not.

For more information about beach health, visit our Beaches pages.

Be Wary of High Water, Debris

Higher, faster water flows and debris are also threats after heavy rain and flooding.

  • Contact the local municipality where you want to boat, fish or swim, or check their website, to see if they have declared emergency slow no wake speed limits in order to protect shorelines from damage, and boaters from running into floating debris. Contact the local municipality for information about speed restrictions.
  • Do not swim in rivers where the water flows are faster and higher than normal. Fast flow in streams and rivers is disorienting for even strong swimmers, and the current may carry trees dislodged from the shoreline which can knock a person off their feet, or submerge them when they swim.
  • Check the USGS WaterWatch webpage for current stream flows and flood-watch conditions: WaterWatch - Current water resources conditions [exit DNR]
  • Do not rely 100% on navigational buoys as the high water and debris may have moved the markers somewhat. Be alert to navigational hazards.