PORTAGE - The state Department of Natural Resources said the deterioration of the 14-mile dike system near Portage slowed down on Monday.
"Our sense right now is things are getting better," DNR spokesman Greg Matthews said.
The National Weather Service reported the Wisconsin River's crest at a record 20.59 feet as of 11 a.m. Monday; the river is at flood stage at 17 feet in the Portage area. At Wisconsin Dells, the river was at 17.4 feet by 9 a.m.; flood stage there is at 16 feet.
The water levels are expected to remain at or about 20.59 feet until this afternoon, and to fall by one to 1 1/2 feet by Wednesday afternoon, according to Columbia County Emergency Manager Pat Beghin.
Dams along the Wisconsin River are helping to prevent the flood from becoming worse, according to Beghin.
"They’re trying to mitigate the effects of the flood as much as they can," Beghin said of the officials who regulate the water flowing through the dams on the river above Portage — which were created to generate power, not regulate water flow.
While such mitigation makes the flood last longer, it helps to keep the water levels lower during the flood, Beghin said.
The National Weather Service said the river is expected to fall below flood stage late Thursday morning.
The dike system, otherwise known as the Caledonia and Lewiston levees, were built by farmers in the 1890s to mitigate flooding along the banks of the Wisconsin River west and south of Portage.
Matthews said the DNR set up 10 sandbag "chimneys" to slow breaches in the dike on the 8-mile Caledonia side along the south banks of the river.
Four sandbag chimneys were set up on the 6-mile Lewiston side, west of Portage along the north side of the river.
The dike is in "bad shape," and is unsafe and saturated with water, he said, but there was cause for optimism.
"Our activity has increased, but we’re not dealing with serious problems," he said. "There has not been a collapse, a breach or an overtopping."
The DNR is responsible for maintaining the dike. DNR officials spent Monday keeping a watch on the leaks or "boils" in the dike system, sandbagging the leaks and walking the dikes to look for additional leaks.
The portion of the Caledonia levee in the Blackhawk area developed leaks over the weekend, affecting about 100 homes and prompting a call by Columbia County officials to evacuate the area.
Access was closed to the low-lying Blackhawk area, south of Portage and east of Highway 33.
Matthews said in a statement that the area, where Blackhawk Road follows the Wisconsin River as it turns south and west toward Lake Wisconsin, was the DNR’s major area of concern.
"This structure is wood, dirt and sand, constructed by farmers and horse teams 120 years ago," he said in the statement. "Should the dike fail, it is very hard to predict how quickly or how wide the collapse would be."
What would happen if the dike near Blackhawk Park fails is uncertain, according to Matthews.
"We don’t know, to be honest with you," Matthews said. "It just depends on where (the breach) is."
The area is flooded because the Wisconsin River flooded, not because the levee is failing or has leaks, Matthews said.
"It’s not substantially protected by the levee," Matthews said of the Blackhawk Park area. "Quite frankly, it’s not a good idea to build in a flood plain."
It is possible, in the event of a breach, that the water will simply spread out along marsh areas near Blackhawk Park, blocking access to the area. "This is not New Orleans," he said.
DNR wardens rescued a dog in the Blackhawk Park area Monday; the dog was taken to the Columbia County Humane Society, according to Kathy Johnson, assistant emergency management director for Columbia County.
"They’re not going to leave (pets) out there," Johnson said.
Columbia County Emergency Management said in a statement that the Civil Air Patrol was providing surveillance of the situation in Portage. Uniformed CAP members were in downtown Portage on Monday. At each flooded street there were barricades with two volunteer CAPs re-directing traffic away from the high water.
Maj. Jim Johnson guarded the barricades going into West Conant Street and waved people in who live in the area.
"We look at it from the standpoint of, ‘If this was my community, someone else would be helping out,’" said Johnson, of Stevens Point.
Guarding the street of West Pleasant on Monday were Lt. Ryan Vechinski and Sgt. Luke Gorst.
"We’re just keeping people from sight-seeing in the residential areas," said Vechinski, of Wisconsin Rapids.
A couple people approached the two men to ask questions and thank them for their presence.
"We’ve got a lot of nice citizens here. Some people brought us cookies and an apple from this woman who lives here on this corner. People are very understanding (of the barricaded areas)," he said.
While the flood is still at its peak, Beghin has begun thinking about the aftermath and what the county will do to help residents clean up. Because of the record water level, "a lot of people (will see) damage in their houses that have never seen it before," he said.