Friday, September 8, 2017

The Great Kickapoo river Flood of 1978 - Pt. IV

When the story of the La Farge dam controversy was broadcast on the CBS Evening News on Friday, October 13, 1978, a new chapter in the dam story seemed to unfold.  Introduced as “The Great Kickapoo Loggerhead” by news-anchor Roger Mudd, the video story as told by CBS newsman Bob Faw was compelling and emotional.  Seeing Ward Rose, Lonnie Muller and Bernice Schroeder relate details of the heartbreaking process of the dam project for many Kickapoogians affected most people who watched it.
            One of those affected was another CBS newsman, Charles Osgood.  Osgood, who hosted a radio show on CBS called “The Osgood File” wrote a poem about the dam project on the Kickapoo and read it over the air on his radio show later in October.  It is a long piece, as Osgood’s poems tend to be, but I want to include his ending here.  He wrote:
It’s been 43 years since the U.S.A.
Began to help Kickapoo out that way.
They spent nineteen million dollars and they built their road
And a great new bridge, as we already showed.
And they let all that farmland go to seed,
Where today there’s that acreage and sundry weed.
Still, the folks there in Kickapoo have the gall
To complain, showing little gratitude at all.
Congress got impatient and cut off the dough.
Building was stopped about three years ago.
The valley is frustrated, the people mad.
They’d settle now for what they one time had.

Uncle Sam’s embarrassed and his face is red.
And this week somebody in the White House said,
“Tell you what we’ll do in this Administration:
We’ll assign a task force in the situation.”
Nice of those folks in the capital city
To come right out like that and appoint a committee.
And who knows what that committee will find?
Whether to quit while they’re still behind,
Or to finish the dam for several million more
That they started out planning in the days of yore.

Well, we should tell you that which everyone in Kickapoo knows:
They still have the floods.  Oh, they have lots of those.
Plenty of flood damage – my, oh, my!
Fifty million dollars just this past July.
“I’m angry,” says a citizen, “indeed, I am!”
Now you know why they invented the expression: DAMN!

Soon after the CBS News coverage of the dam project by Bob Faw and Charles Osgood, President Jimmy Carter made the official announcement of the first public meeting of the joint federal-state task force to study options for flood control and economic development for the Kickapoo Valley.  Perhaps the features in the nationally broadcast CBS pieces had hurried the process along, perhaps not.
Bob Faw finished his video report on the La Farge dam project by saying, “a flood control project that controls absolutely nothing”.  Would the latest task-force study provide some answers for the dam at La Farge to control something?
Actually, many people in the community of La Farge were sick and tired of all the studies done on the Kickapoo Valley.  President Carter’s call for a new study elicited groans from many in the community, regardless of their position on the dam project.  Kickapoogians were weary of studies.  The problem of flooding in the Kickapoo Valley had been studied to death over a period that stretched back to the 1930’s.
President Carter’s Task Force on Kickapoo River Flood Damage Reduction held its first public meeting On November 16, 1978.  The meeting was held at the high school gymnasium in Gays Mills with nearly 200 people in attendance.  Colonel Ted Bishop of the Corps of Engineers acted as moderator for the meeting which featured representatives from various federal and state agencies.  In addition, Senator Gaylord Nelson also attended the meeting.
            In his prepared remarks, Senator Nelson told the gathering that the dam project at La Farge was dead.  “A dam is out of the question,” Nelson said.  “The project that is currently authorized fails to meet the administration’s economic and ecological tests.  The task force must develop a comprehensive, valley-wide plan that provides a higher degree of flood protection for many more residents.”  Senator Nelson added, “The task force’s review is the valley’s best chance.  The battle over the dam is finished.  We must move forward if anything is to be accomplished.”
            Colonel Bishop told the gathering that the Task Force was formed to find ways to relieve flood damage in the Kickapoo Valley without using structures such as dams or levees.  During the proceedings, Bishop continually asked people who were speaking to not discuss the dam project at La Farge as a possible option.  However, Col. Bishop’s admonitions had little affect on those who testified.
            Many people from La Farge spoke at the meeting.  Bernice Schroeder, speaking as a representative of KLOUT, spoke in favor of completing the authorized project and completing the dam at La Farge.  Schroeder said it was “a broken promise” to the former landowners if the dam was not completed.  She thought that if the dam was not completed then the lands should be returned to the former owners.
            Also speaking from La Farge for completion of the dam project were Roger Andrew, Bernard and Jeanne Smith, Palmer Munson, Olive Nelson and Esther Ziebell.  Palmer Munson, speaking as town chairman of the Town of Stark, spoke of the tax hardships for the people living in the township due to the government buying so much land for the dam project.  Munson also advocated for the completion of the dam, as did people from other places in the Kickapoo Valley.
Jim Coxe from Wauzeka called for the completion of a dry dam at La Farge, saying that such a structure would benefit everyone in the Kickapoo Valley during floods.  Carl Oppreicht of the Gays Mills Flood Avoidance Committee spoke in favor of construction of small retention dams along tributaries running into the Kickapoo River as well as completion of a dry dam at La Farge.
Vernon County Board member George Nettum admonished the members of the Task Force for the failure to complete the dam at La Farge.  He called the dam project the “biggest fiasco ever” and encouraged the Task Force members to include the completion of the dam at La Farge in future plans.
The Task Force recommendations did call for an expanded flood insurance program for villages in the Kickapoo Valley, crop insurance for farmers along the river, a valley-wide warning and preparedness plan, evacuation/relocation plans for Soldiers Grove, flood proofing and a levee system for Gays Mills and a federal/local effort to clear the river and tributaries of snags and debris.
However, the preliminary recommendations released by the Presidential Task Force in December included nothing about the completion of the dam at La Farge.  As Senator Nelson had said repeatedly throughout 1978, the dam project at La Farge was dead.    
And so it went.  For the next decade a variety of efforts were made to do something with the partially completed dam at La Farge.  Many politicians at the state and federal level tried to move the dam project in some way towards some sort of conclusion.  But it never happened.  “A flood control project that controls absolutely nothing.”

*                                  *                                  *                                  *

            To finish, let me write that a completed Corps of Engineers’ flood control dam north of La Farge that should have been completed in the mid-1970’s would have greatly lessoned the devastation of the flood of 1978, then the massive destruction from the flood of 2008, and now the misery of the flood of 2017.  That is what the dam was designed to do. 
The finished dam would not have curtailed any flood waters on Otter or Bear Creeks nor saved anybody’s washed-out driveway along those streams. The completed dam would not have saved Ontario from the ravages of the recent flood in July of 2017.  But we should also remember that five retention dams for the Ontario area were to be built as part of the project at La Farge.  If built, those retention dams would have lessoned the impact of the recent floodwaters on Ontario.

In the end, by not completing the dam or any of the ancillary parts of the federal project like the retention dams, the Kickapoo Valley was left to its own devises to cope with devastating floods.

The Great Kickapoo River Flood - Pt. III

The political fallout after the Great Kickapoo River Flood of 1978 was almost as prolific as the floodwaters.  State and federal elected officials were tripping over their wagging tongues as they tried to justify and even rationalize the failure of the unfinished dam at La Farge to have an impact on the flood.  Since the dam was supposed to have been completed several years before that great flood of the summer of 1978, and since the original purpose of the dam was for flood control, politicians who had delayed the dam’s completion had some explaining to do.  Looking back at those months that followed the Kickapoo Valley flood, it is interesting to note the variety of responses from the politicians.
As soon as the waters of the Kickapoo had settled back into its banks, politicians flocked to the valley to assess the damages.  Senator William Proxmire was the first to appear and met with municipal leaders in most of the Kickapoo Valley villages.  Vernon County Sheriff Geoff Banta escorted the Senator around the Kickapoo Valley under directions from the Federal Marshall’s office in Madison.  In La Farge, Proxmire talked with Village President Ted Erickson, La Farge Fire Chief Phil Stittleburg, KLOUT leader Roger Gabrielson and LaVerne Campbell, chairman of the Citizens For The Kickapoo. 
Despite the damages caused by the flood, Proxmire still refused to back the dam project because of high costs.  “Proxie” remained steadfast in his opposition to the completion of the project.  The Senior Senator from Wisconsin, whose withdrawal of his support for the dam project in September 1975 was the beginning of the end for the completion of the project, proved to be the first politician to visit the Kickapoo Valley after the flood.  But he was not the last.
Wisconsin Governor Martin Schreiber also toured the Kickapoo Valley soon after Senator Proxmire.  Schreiber had declared the entire area of southwestern Wisconsin, including the Kickapoo Valley, a disaster area even before the floodwaters had finished receding.  As Schreiber toured the valley, he paid particular attention to the damages in Soldiers Grove.  The Governor, who previously had been non-committal on finishing the dam at La Farge for even flood control, said soon after his visit to the Kickapoo Valley that he would support such a move if there were “a clear and concise showing that the dam is the option for flood control, for protection of property and people”.
1978 was an election year and Schreiber was a candidate for governor.  Two years earlier, Schreiber had been elected as Wisconsin’s Lieutenant Governor, under then Governor Patrick Lucey.  When Lucey was appointed to be U.S. Ambassador to Mexico by President Jimmy Carter in April 1977, Schreiber became governor.  Although Schreiber was viewed as more of a friend to the dam project than Governor Lucey had been, Schreiber still would not endorse the completion of the dam.
  Governor Schreiber faced a challenge in his own party for the gubernatorial post.  David Carley, a Democrat running against Governor Schreiber, also toured the Kickapoo Valley in late July and criticized Schreiber for his lack of action on the dam project prior to the flooding.
  3rd District Congressman Al Baldus also came to the Kickapoo Valley after the flood.  Long a proponent of the “Dry Dam” option, which called for completing the dam at La Farge (without a lake) for flood protection, Baldus continued to call for the completion of the La Farge dam as a part of any future flood control solution for the Kickapoo Valley.
Senator Gaylord Nelson, long an opponent of the dam project, did not visit the Kickapoo Valley after the flood, but his office did release a statement saying that a completed dam at La Farge would only have made a 5% difference in the severity of the flood.  Where the Senator’s office found that miniscule number remained a mystery, although it was later attributed to the Corps of Engineers.  Nelson’s 5% damage figure and the downplaying of the value of a completed dam at La Farge for flood control brought much consternation in the La Farge area.  Local journalist Pete Beckstrand perhaps voiced the sentiment best when addressing some statements made by Senator Nelson’s aide, Jeff Nedelman.
Writing for the La Farge Epitaph newspaper, Pete Beckstrand found the statements from Nelson’s office amusing.  In his “Dam Lies” column in the July 12, 1978 issue, Beckstrand wrote, “It is a different world out there in the District of Columbia and nothing has made that more clear than Gaylord Nelson’s latest one-act play ‘Aide Jeff Nedelman Fires Wildly In The Dark With Both Guns Blazing’.  Nedelman’s latest poke is that the flooding at Soldiers Grove was so severe because of Otter Creek and Bear Creek below La Farge.  The Milwaukee Journal dutifully took that down and thousands of its readers no doubt believe it even though anyone who went through the flood just laughs at such statements.  It’s as if the 12,900 cubic feet of water coming through La Farge every second had nothing to do with the situation.” 
Beckstrand went on to add, “The Grove dikes held back what the creeks had to offer, including the West Fork, for two days.  But when the wall of water came down the valley from Norwalk, Ontario, La Farge, Viola, Readstown; that is what went over their dikes.  That water could be accurately timed as it went downriver from town to town.  That is the water that would have been held by the La Farge Dam.” 
Later, the Corps of Engineers came up with very different numbers for the impact of a completed dam at La Farge on the 1978 flood.  Corps estimates on the total damages from the flood in Vernon, Richland and Crawford Counties was $20 million.  An additional $7 million in damages occurred in Monroe County, but a dam at La Farge would not have affected those damages.  However, the Corps estimated that with a completed dam at La Farge and the accompanying levee systems at Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills, 80% of the flood damages to Kickapoo towns would have been avoided.  With only the dam in place and with no downstream levees, the Corps still predicted a decrease of 63% in flood damages.  The Corps also contended that the dike failure at Soldiers Grove, which devastated that town’s business district, would not have happened with a completed and functioning dam at La Farge in place.
In August, President Carter called for a joint federal-state task force to study the problems of flood control and economic development for the Kickapoo Valley.  The announcement came after a meeting with Senators Nelson and Proxmire and Congressman Baldus.  Governor Schreiber immediately offered state support for the task force.  Senator Nelson said, “The task force may provide our last chance for a comprehensive valley-wide solution to the problems along the Kickapoo”. 
Nelson continued to resist any attempts at finishing the dam at La Farge since President Carter also had vigorously opposed the project.  Nelson said, “Moreover, the dam would have violated federal and state water quality standards and its construction would have been halted by lawsuits.  Beyond all that, it would have provided no more than 5% flood abatement to Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills.  The dam was clearly not the answer to the real problems facing the Kickapoo Valley.”  Despite statistics to the contrary, Senator Nelson stuck to his 5% CYA number regarding the dam’s potential reduction of flood damages.

On Friday, October 13, 1978 a story on the La Farge dam project was shown on the national broadcast of the CBS Evening News.  CBS anchorman Roger Mudd introduced the video piece as “The Great Kickapoo Loggerhead” and newsman Bob Faw concluded the piece by describing the dam project as “a flood control project that controls absolutely nothing”.