Floods on the Kickapoo River
As farmers filled the Kickapoo River Valley, and towns like La Farge grew along its banks, the river’s periodic floods became more and more troublesome. Major floods occurred in 1907, 1912, 1917, 1935, 1951 and 1956. The floods caused millions of dollars of damage to the towns and farmsteads.
After the 1935 flood, some Kickapoo Valley residents, along with Congressman Gardner Withrow, traveled to Washington, D.C. They hoped to get a flood control project for the Kickapoo River. In 1936 Congress passed the first national flood control act. In it, Congress authorized the Corps to study the Kickapoo’s flooding. By 1950, the Corps had prepared three flood control plans for the river. In 1959, following the floods of 1951 and 1956, the Corps and the Wisconsin Conservation Department began discussing a dam and 800-acre reservoir for the Kickapoo River above La Farge.
A Flood Control Project
Responding to repeated flooding, growing damages, and increasing pressure from local interests, Congress authorized a flood control project for the Kickapoo River in the 1962 Flood Control Act. The Corps estimated that the reservoir project would cost $15 million and the work downstream at Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills another $1 million.
Excitement grew following the authorization. Hoping to boost the local economy, several citizen groups formed in the early 1960’s to support recreational use of the new reservoir. One organization, Citizens for the Kickapoo Area (CKA), acted as a liaison to the community and later helped sponsor the ground-breaking ceremonies. Valley residents also formed the Kickapoo Valley Association (KVA) to support the project and to advertise the area’s scenic and recreational values. Local citizens cleared and cleaned the river for better canoeing and put up signs marking the Kickapoo Trail and camping areas.
In 1967, following a more detailed study aimed at increasing the project’s recreational benefits, the Corps proposed a larger dam and reservoir. The new lake would be 1,780 acres, taking in the runoff from 263 square miles. The dam would lie about one mile above La Farge and extend for 12 miles upstream. The price rose to $24.5 million.
Wisconsin governors Gaylord Nelson (1959-63), John W. Reynolds (1963-65) and Warren P. Knowles (1965-71) avidly backed the new project. Senator William Proxmire and Nelson, when he became a senator, also supported the project. The senators, however, would soon turn against it.
Shortly after the Corps proposed its new design, the project became mired. America's attitude toward the cultural and biological environment was changing. In 1966 Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act, requiring federal agencies to consider the impact of their projects on archeological and historic resources. Three years later, Congress authorized the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Now federal agencies had to evaluate the effects of their actions on the biological environment and research and write an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In August 1970, the Corps submitted its draft EIS, which was among the first published in the country.
In 1970, reflecting the growing concern for the environment, local interests organized to stop the project and asked for help from the John Muir Chapter of Wisconsin Sierra Club. The Sierra Club criticized the Corps' EIS. Soon the Citizens Natural Resources Association of Wisconsin, the Environmental Defense Fund, and other environmental groups joined the Sierra Club. Twice in the early 1970s, the Sierra Club led suits against the Corps--both would fail. But the efforts by local interests, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups began undermining the La Farge Lake Project's support.
Local project supporters fought back. Forming their own group--Citizens for Progress--they lashed out at their opponents. The project began dividing the valley's residents.
By the summer of 1971, the hopes of environmental interests faded. Governor Patrick J. Lucey (1971-77) announced his support for the project in May 1971. The Sierra Club answered with its second suit to stop the project, but it failed.