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”.