During September, the Kickapoo Valley was awash in floodwaters. It was not a record-setter like we had back in 2008, but it was a significant flooding event for the Valley. If one watched the weather patterns over the last few months, this flood in the fall season could almost be anticipated. The Kickapoo Valley has a saturation point and once that is attained, then flooding is almost sure to follow.
The flood of September 22-24, 2016 reached a height of a little over 14 feet as recorded at the measuring station on the Kickapoo River at La Farge. This is almost two feet below the record setting flood of June 2008, but it still qualifies as a “100-Year Flood” according to the flood measuring system adopted by the Corps of Engineers. Now, we must remember that the “100-Year Flood” label does not mean that type of severe flood comes along every century or so. What the designation does define is that type of severe flooding has a 1% chance of occurring on a yearly basis. Clear as the muddy waters of the Kickapoo, right?
We need to back up a few months to see how this all set up for the Valley’s saturation point to be reached. That term “saturation point” has been in the state news a lot in the past few weeks. After the heavy rains in southern Wisconsin of this past September, the National Weather Service office out of Madison has released figures to show that water saturation is at record levels in area topsoil. Although these measurements have only been kept since 1995, the September 2016 figures are record setters for the month and some of the top saturation levels ever recorded. Here in the Kickapoo Valley, those record saturation levels have been quite apparent for a while.
Here at our place on Bear Creek, there is a field next to the highway that is jokingly referred to as a hay field. Filled with weeds and marsh grasses, the field has relinquished several big bales of “horse hay” to cousin, Mike Steinmetz, over the past several years. Mike even has baled up two cuttings of the marshy mixture in the good dry years. “Good years” are the ones when it is dry enough to get the hay machines on the field to get the hay crop harvested. This has not been a good year.
I talked to Mike about possibly baling up the marsh hay before the 4th of July. It was a little wet then from several heavy rains in June, so the harvest was delayed some. That was really not a good idea, as it seemed to rain every other day in July. Meanwhile the weeds in the field soared to the sky as the harvest was delayed – a bumper crop of Yellow Rocket, Wild Parsnip and Globe Plant. Finally, on July 25th, Mike cut the “hay” in the field. When he was done driving through the marshy morass of muck, he told me that I should grow cranberries in the field next year. He waited a week for the cut grass to dry out. It never did. As he baled up the soggy mass of weeds and grasses, water was spewing from the baler. Saturation point had been attained – and that was on August 1st.
The month of August was another rainy one, with some type of rain on nearly half the days – precipitation was much above average for the month. Then came the real rains of September.
There was 4.25” of rain on September 6-7, another inch on the 9th, another couple of inches in the week of September 12th thru the 16th, on the 19th we had a rain shower with hail just for a little change, and then to make things really interesting, we had 6.25” of the wet stuff during the week of September 19th thru the 25th. Although we are on the last day of the month as I’m writing this and it looks rainy, September’s rains will total in the 14-15” range – record setting for the month. And that was AFTER the heavier than normal rains of the previous three months had put the Kickapoo Valley at the dreaded SATURATION POINT!
There was a “Preview of Coming Attractions” for us back after those early torrential rains the first week of September. The creeks were out of the banks everywhere and Bear Creek went over Highway 131 at the bridge on the south end of town. That day, September 7th, was also the day that La Farge hosted a regional conference on development of small towns. Government officials from though out southern Wisconsin descended on the village for the forum. I gave a little history bus tour of the town that morning, prior to the forum’s beginning session. As I herded several dozen people onto the bus in a pouring rain, some mentioned that they had gone through floodwaters that morning to get to La Farge. Then they boarded a bus with the name “TITANIC” on the side! When I told them that only special town tours of La Farge included a Kickapoo Valley flood while on board a TITANIC bus, some failed to see the humor in the morning’s situation.
Face Book and IPhones give a whole new perspective to Kickapoo Valley floods. The photos are much more plentiful and the news travels much faster on a personal level. The photo of Ken Choninger’s car buried in a washout hole at the bridge in Valley went viral on social media. Scenes of washed out driveways taken from many different vantage points has an eerie end-of-the-world quality to them. People who once lived in the Kickapoo Valley, but who now are high and dry in more secure locations, sent frantic messages wondering if everything had been washed away.
Truth be told, it was a rather run-of-the-mill flood by old time standards. Yes, the water went across Highway 82 between Nuzum’s and the cheese factory like it always does. Andrews Flat filled up with the overflow floodwaters of the river and some of it flowed down Mill Street past the new clinic. The water did run over old Highway 131 at Seelyburg for a couple of days.
But there were NOT any logs floating along Main Street like in 1907, 1935 and 2008. As a matter of fact, we do not have any sawmill in town any more for the logs to float out of. The edge of the floodwaters did not edge up to the parking lot of the Co-op like in the really big ones of the past. It was not a “GREAT” Kickapoo River flood in La Farge although it was much more of a river-flooding event downstream in Viola, Readstown and Gays Mills. Another reason that this year’s flood had less of an impact on La Farge was that over twenty former residences in town are no longer in the path of the floodwaters. Those houses located in La Farge that used to sit in the floods’ path were bought out using FEMA and DNR funds after the 2008 flood. Most were razed and hauled away to the landfill.
Another lively discussion that took place about the flood, concerned the Corps’ dam located north of La Farge. If the dam had been finished, would it have curtailed the effects of the flood? OF COURSE IT WOULD HAVE! The main purpose of that federal project was to control floodwaters in the Kickapoo Valley. It would have held back the floodwaters coming down from Ontario and that would have meant less flooding for La Farge, Viola and Readstown. Remember that part of the La Farge dam project also included levy systems to protect the villages of Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills. If those had been completed and the six retention dams had been built north of La Farge, also part of the federal project, the flood of September 2016 might have been looked at with yawning indifference. But the big dam at La Farge, the down-river levy systems and the up-river retention dams never were built, so now we just keep backing away from the rising floodwaters.
Quoting from Volume 1 of my history book about La Farge, one resident who had barely survived the great flood of 1935 said, “I will never sleep in that house again. Get me away from that damn river!”