We continue to look at a time in the early 1970’s when the community of La Farge was grappling with the emerging realities of whether a dam to be built north of town on the Kickapoo River was going to create Lake La Farge. This isn’t the point in the story about the end of that federal project, but it just might be the beginning of the end.
I was recently taking a hike around the Visitor Center of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve with a group of students from Malcolm Shabazz City High School in Madison. We were sitting in the pine trees above the Kickapoo and looking out across the valley at the water intake tower of that still unfinished dam. One of the students asked why the dam wasn’t completed and I gave my standard “short-story” answer that it was stopped because of political, financial and environmental reasons.
In this entry, we look back at a time when those three dynamics – politics, finances and environmental concerns – were first introduced and delineated to the people of the Kickapoo Valley.
Governor Patrick Lucey’s “Intensive Review” of the La Farge Dam & Lake Project was held on Tuesday, April 27, 1971 in a packed conference room at the state capital building in Madison. The Governor did not attend the conference, citing previous commitments. Colonel Charles McGinnis, district engineer from the Corps of Engineers St. Paul office, was named chairman of the meeting by Governor Lucey and moderated the review session.
Another engineer from the Corps’ St Paul office, Richard Colton, explained at the outset of the review session that the Corps had looked at fourteen different alternative proposals to the “big dam” option chosen for the Kickapoo River at La Farge. The Corps had studied some of the alternatives in the initial planning phase of the Kickapoo River project, while other proposals that had more recently been brought forward had also been analyzed in the previous few months. Colton stated that for maximum flood protection at the most efficient cost, the present planned construction of a dam at La Farge remained the best option. It was evident from his comments on the alternative proposals that Colton was addressing the opposition to the project.
Colonel McGinnis also took time to explain the method used by the Corps to estimate the cost of the La Farge project. He said that the interest rate used to calculate the feasibility of the project was frozen under Congressional rules at a 3.125% rate that had been adopted in 1968. If the Chief of Army Engineers had to put the La Farge project on his deferred list, which could happen if the project was delayed any further, the interest rate would be unfrozen and the project would have to be refigured. With a higher interest rate that was in place in 1971, the project would not be feasible due to not meeting the benefit/cost ratio used on such federal projects.
McGinnis went on to say that with the 3.125% interest rate used by the federal government to borrow money for the dam project, the benefit/cost ratio was 1.3 ($1.30 in value returned after the project was completed for every dollar spent to build it). However, if 1971 interest rates were used for the project due to any kind of a delay, then the benefit/cost ratio would be cut to 0.8, which would make the federal project economically unjustified. This explanation by Colonel McGinnis clearly showed that any delay could possibly stop the dam project at La Farge.
McGinnis asked all of the speakers at the review session to “separate fact from opinion” when presenting testimony to better enable the Governor and his staff to decide if the state still wanted the federal project. Professor Robert Lord presented the most compelling information against the proposed dam project that day at the review session.
Robert Lord was a highly respected member of the faculty at the University of Wisconsin. He was a Professor of Agricultural Economics and Forestry at UW and was the Director of the Resource Policy Studies and Programs at the university. From 1965 to 1967, Lord had worked as an economic advisor for the Corps of Engineers on various water resource programs. The UW professor would base most of his testimony in opposition to the La Farge dam project on a study done by four UW water resource management graduate students. The graduate study project, completed in August 1970, looked at the Kickapoo River project in the areas of flood control, economics, recreation and landscape.
The Lord Report (as the graduate student’s study came to be known) attacked the La Farge dam project on all fronts. The study contested the cost/benefit ratio analysis of the project used by the Corps. The report also disputed the flood control aspects of the dam project as well as the recreational benefits of the lake to be created behind the dam. Lastly, the study raised serious concerns about the environmental impact of the project, both relating to the effect of the lake on the natural environment of the Kickapoo Valley and the perceived future water quality problems in the lake itself.
In his concluding remarks, Professor Lord called on the Governor and the Corps of Engineers to take a pause in the construction of the dam to reexamine the potential problems with the project. He asked the Governor to set up a task force group composed of state and federal agencies to look at the perceived problems with the project. Lord thought that the task force group should pay particular attention to the creation of a Kickapoo River State Forest, using the lands purchased for the La Farge dam project reservoir and neighboring Wildcat Mountain State Park land for the creation of a Kickapoo River Parkway and Bikeway with trails, interpretive facilities and scientific reserves.
Professor Lord’s presentation and the information brought forward in the study done by the UW graduate students was the foundation for all of the other anti-dam advocates who spoke at the intensive review session that day. Robert Smith, speaking on behalf of the Madison-based John Muir Chapter of the Sierra Club and Ronald Rich both relied on information gathered by Professor Lord and his students. Both Smith and Rich described the Kickapoo River as a natural wild treasure that would be destroyed and lost by the creation of the La Farge dam’s reservoir.
Ronald Rich added a personal note in the conclusion to his presentation as to the difficulty in opposing the La Farge project for those who lived in the Kickapoo Valley. He said, ”I would like to add that opposing this project has been made most difficult by a radical element of the proponents who have constantly, through the past year, intimidated, harassed, and threatened anyone who dared speak against this project. As recently as Monday, April 19, 1971, I was told personally by a project proponent that if the dam is not built he would hate to have his name on the list of people who opposed the dam. If our voices have appeared to be few in number, this is the reason for it.”
Next time we will look at those dam project proponents and what they had to say that day at Governor Lucey’s intensive review session.