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River levels rise after heavy rains

Recent heavy rains in the upper Chippewa River watershed are resulting in increased runoff and rising river levels in Eau Claire.

According to city officials, the Chippewa River gauge at Grand Avenue read 770.6 feet at 5 a.m. Monday, which is about 3 feet below the food stage of 773 feet.

The current crest projection is 771.7 feet today. At this reading, water will have inundated some areas of the Chippewa River State Trail.

The following have been closed:

• The Chippewa River Trail by Haas Fine Arts Center and behind the boat landing at Hobbs Ice Arena.

• The lower levels of Owen Park, including the tennis courts and band shell.

• Street underpasses at Farwell and Madison streets.

Lighting along the Eau Claire River has been disconnected.

The city will continue to monitor the river and provide information and updates as necessary.

Midwest Xcel Energy will be coal-free by 2030

The 7.8 million tons of coal used by Xcel Energy to provide electricity to Midwest customers, including those in western Wisconsin, will fall to zero by 2030, according to a new plan from the utility company.

On Monday the company announced an accelerated reduction in its carbon footprint, including closing dates for coal-fired generators in Minnesota that currently provide 30% of the electricity for its 1.8 million customers in the Upper Midwest.

“This is a significant step forward as we are on track to reduce carbon emissions by more than 80% by 2030 and transform the way we deliver energy to our customers,” Chris Clark, president of Xcel Energy in Minnesota and the Dakotas, said in the company’s news release.

The plan headed to Minnesota regulators in July includes retiring the coal plants, boosting wind and solar power, adding more natural gas capacity for generating electricity and extending the license for a nuclear power plant.

“Retiring coal, adding renewables and extending the use of nuclear energy is the fastest way to deliver carbon reductions at the lowest cost,” Xcel stated in the news release.

By 2030, the company expects its carbon emissions will be 80% lower than the baseline year of 2005. The company’s ultimate goal is to produce entirely carbon-free electricity by 2050.

Mark Stoering, Xcel’s president of Wisconsin operations, said the company will be able to make the 80% goal using existing technologies but getting to the 100% mark will require some advances that are also affordable.

“To get that last 20% of carbon reduction, we’ll need an assist from technologies that either aren’t available today or aren’t economically available today,” Stoering said.

The company also believes it can reach its carbon-reduction goals while keeping customer bill increases at or below the rate of inflation, the news release stated.

Xcel has been feeling the push from consumers, policymakers, regulators and investors to switch to renewable energy sources.

“Not only does it make sense from an environmental stance, it makes good business sense as well,” Stoering said.

Prices for windmills and solar panels have been dropping in recent years, making the technology more affordable.

“The capital costs of investing in steel, aluminum and glass more than offsets the operating costs for running the coal plants,” Stoering said.

Currently about 27% of Xcel’s electricity to Midwest customers comes from renewable sources, including wind, hydroelectric, solar and biomass.

But with the company’s largest-ever wind expansion — adding new windmills in the Dakotas and southwestern Minnesota — slated for completion by 2022, about 30% will come from wind alone.

When the sun isn’t shining on solar panels and wind isn’t turning turbines, Xcel will rely on natural gas for reliable power, which creates about half the carbon emissions as burning coal.

“We’d be using natural gas to ensure reliability,” Stoering said.

A natural gas plant will be built in the next four years at Xcel’s Sherco site in Becker, Minn., where three coal generators will be shut down by 2030.

Xcel also announced last fall that it is buying Mankato Energy Center, a natural gas-fired electricity plant in Mankato, Minn., for $650 million.

That deal is expected to close this summer, along with a project that will double the plant’s output to 760 megawatts.

Xcel’s plan does rely on keeping nuclear power in the mix as a reliable source of electricity that the company also points out is carbon-free.

To that end, Xcel is seeking a 10-year extension on its license to run a nuclear power plant in Monticello, Minn., which is currently set to expire in 2030.

Xcel also runs the two-reactor Prairie Island nuclear power plant in Welch, Minn. Licenses on those reactors run out in 2033 and 2034 and the company has not yet announced plans to renew them.

Xcel’s new carbon-reduction plan is expected to help Eau Claire get closer to an ambitious goal set by city leaders to use only renewable energy by 2050. The city’s goal not only seeks electricity produced without fossil fuels, but also the same for heating and transportation.

“It’s going to really take the community as a collective to reach that goal,” said Ned Noel, associate city planner.

Aided by a state grant, the city is working with Xcel and the Minnesota-based Center for Energy and Environment on a plan laying out what Eau Claire will need to do to use only clean power. The planning effort had its first meeting earlier this month and plans several more before producing a final report by the end of this year.

Like Xcel reaching the finish line for its goal, Noel said the city will need help from as-yet-unseen technological breakthroughs to get to its 100% renewable energy mark.

“Everybody’s banking on technology,” he said.

Eau Claire school district
EC school district panel recommends boundary plan, rejects parent proposal

Nearly four weeks after a parent suggested an alternative to the elementary school boundary change plan recommended by an Eau Claire school district committee, that committee elected to stand by its original recommendation.

After giving careful consideration to Roosevelt Elementary School parent Kelly Hendrickson’s proposal for flexible school boundaries, the district’s Demographic Trends and Facility Planning Committee voted to recommend the Eau Claire school board approve an option that would alter north side elementary school boundaries in a way that would cause about 275 students to switch schools, said Phil Lyons, committee chairman.

Lyons acknowledged that Hendrickson’s proposal, dubbed the “Flex Plan,” offers the advantage of asking fewer than 30 students to change schools, but he told the school board Monday evening that it fails to alleviate overcrowding enough at Roosevelt by grandfathering in existing students and would add about $150,000 in costs for four new bus routes and $50,000 annually for ongoing clerical support.

The committee’s recommended solution is cost-neutral and does a better job of addressing a situation in which some Eau Claire school district elementary schools are close to their maximum capacity and others are operating with plenty of extra space, he said.

“The committee believed that that recommendation meets all of the guidelines and stated principles of the committee. We believe that it provided a long-term and a stable solution, and the Roosevelt portion does not impact the annual operating budget of the district,” Lyons said.

But the recommendation might not be the end of the story, as Hendrickson told the Leader-Telegram she emailed school board members an updated version of her proposal Monday morning to address some of the cost concerns.

“It’s disappointing,” she said of the recommendation, “but we’ve been fighting an uphill battle for seven months now. I would hope they’d still consider the new proposal.”

Hendrickson’s husband, Justin, added, “We aren’t giving up.”

Kelly Hendrickson, president of Roosevelt’s Parent-Teacher Association, has explained that her original proposal, created using district enrollment and facilities information, was an attempt to reduce the number of families affected by the boundary change plan recommended by the committee.

After first hearing discussion about shuttering Roosevelt and re-drawing north side elementary school boundaries, Hendrickson knew she didn’t want her three children to have to switch schools and figured other families also would prefer to avoid such disruption.

Hendrickson presented her plan April 25 to the Demographic Trends and Facilities Planning Committee. The school board took her plan seriously enough that it voted to delay discussions of the committee’s recommendation to alter boundaries for the 2020-21 school year so that district officials and the committee could give consideration to Hendrickson’s proposal.

Her plan calls for flexible boundaries in several areas on the north side, including tracts of land north of Highway 312 and the southern portion of the town of Union. In those areas, the district would have the authority to assign incoming new students and incoming kindergartners to a school based on district capacity needs.

The plan, which seeks to control the size of schools by controlling the size of the incoming kindergarten class each year, would keep Lakeshore and Roosevelt around 90% capacity, while also bringing Locust Lane above 65%, according to Hendrickson’s projections.

While her original plan called for 23 students to switch schools, Hendrickson said Monday her revised proposal would move only 20 students and limit the flexing in a way she believes would eliminate the need for any extra bus routes.

Roosevelt parent Ben Holmen said he fears the board doesn’t have a full understanding of the community proposal and questioned why the committee determined a plan moving less than two dozen students would require such high clerical costs.

Justin Hendrickson said the Roosevelt parents hope to set up personal meetings with board members to explain the details of the proposal in an unfiltered manner before a plan is approved. Board members did not discuss the proposals at Monday’s meeting.

Cellphone policy

The board also voted Monday to update the district’s policy on student use of electronic devices.

The old policy, adopted in 1990 and revised in 2004, addressed if and when students could use electronic devices, such as beepers, in school or at school-sponsored activities.

The revised version assumes students will have cellphones and focuses more on setting standards for appropriate use.

The new policy indicates that principals are authorized to establish rules and use guidelines in their buildings, that students at all grade levels are permitted to use personal electronic devices as needed in emergency situations unless directed otherwise by staff and that devices possessed by students may be subject to an appropriately limited search by a district official or school resources officer when the official has reason to suspect a search may lead to evidence of a crime or violation of school rules.

The policy also makes clear students are not permitted to use electronic communication devices:

• To engage in bullying or harassment.

• To communicate test answers, photograph tests or engage in any conduct that constitutes academic dishonesty.

• To take, disseminate or share images, recordings or other content considered obscene, illegal or sexually explicit.

• To create or share recordings or images of any other student or staff members without permission from that person.

• For any reason other than an emergency in locker rooms, bathrooms or other places where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

“It’s really about helping students become more responsible digital citizens,” district schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said.