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History of West Fork Kickapoo dams provides perspective
WFK Work Plan-1
THE WORK PLAN for watershed protection and flood prevention for the West Fork Kickapoo Watershed was a joint project of Monroe and Vernon counties. The plan, which resulted in construction of flood control dams funded under the Public Law 566 program, was approved in May of 1961.

VERNON COUNTY - The two dams that breached in the late August floods of 2018 – Jersey Valley and Mlsna – were originally established as the result of community effort to control the effects of flooding in the West Fork of the Kickapoo River. 

The West Clinton Watershed Association (WCWA), active in the upper reaches of the West Fork Kickapoo in Monroe and Vernon counties in the late 1950s, was instrumental in propelling the effort forward. 

The WCWA was formed in 1953 and operated during the construction program in the West Fork. In November of 1958, the association combined to include all lands draining into the West Fork. New directors were elected from the new territory to make a total of 14. The group would submit an application under PL-566 early in 1959. The Vernon County Soil and Water Conservation District was designated as the ‘local sponsor.’

Operating at the same time, the Coon Creek Flood Control Association was organized in1956 and submitted their application in 1957. The North and South Bad Axe groups were organized in 1957 and submitted their application in 1958.

In addition, a quad-county organization of town chairmen was formally organized in the spring of 1958. It included Crawford, Richland, Monroe and Vernon counties. The purpose of the organization was to coordinate conservation and flood control activities for the entire Kickapoo River. In 1960, the Vernon County Board Chairman Ray Powers, of Westby, headed the organization.

Pilot project

Mlsna, along with Klinkner Dam, in the Knapps Creek tributary of the West Fork were early ‘pilot’ projects in the mid-1950s. Jersey Valley was originally proposed as part of the pilot, but then removed because the landowner would not sell an easement. It and other dams in the watershed came later after the benefits of dams for flood control were established in the severe flood of 1959. 

The pilot structures were built under PL-156, and the pilot location was selected because more than 50 percent of the farmers were cooperating with their soil and water conservation districts. This was considered to make it a good demonstration area for structural flood prevention.

Monroe and Vernon County were both involved in the pilot project, which was one of 60 nationwide at the time. The momentum built off the living memory of the success of the Civilian Conservation Corp’s Coon Creek Watershed Project, which had been undertaken just 20 years before. Approval to move forward was required by the counties, town boards, and the 200 farmers in the two-county district. The dams were built on the farms of Ed Mlsna and Levin Klinkner.

The project would cost $300,000 ($2,820,279 in 2018 dollars). Vernon County’s share would be $43,600 ($409,881 in 2018 dollars) and Monroe County’s $10,000 ($94,009 in 2018 dollars). Each of the 185 farmers in the two townships in Vernon County would pay about $3.30 ($31.02 in 2018 dollars) per year for five years to pay for the project, a total of $3,050 ($28,673 in 2018 dollars).

A total of 18,795 acres of land would be involved in the pilot project – 17,135 in the Vernon County townships of Christiana and Clinton, and 1,660 acres in the Monroe County townships of Portland and Jefferson.

The boundaries of the project were Bloomingdale on the south; Highway 27 to the west; Cashton to the north; and County D to the east.

Robert E. Lee, a Madison area conservationist, told gathered landowners at a meeting held in Westby in January of 1954: “Starting with the $300,000 figure for the estimated cost, the estimated federal participation would be $108,000, leaving $192,000. From this would be deducted credits to farmers for current and to-be-constructed conservation practices such as strip cropping, terraces, diversions, pasture renovation, contour fencing and fencing of woodlots. The estimated credit for installation and maintenance of the conservation land treatment measures would be $136,000, which would leave $56,000 to be paid, of which an estimated $2,400 in additional credits would be given to farmers whose land was used to construct 16 gully control structures. This would leave the total cost to farmers, townships and the counties at $53,600.”

Vernon County agreed to make an appropriation of $7,500 per year for five years, for a total of $43,600 ($409,881 in 2018 dollars).

In defending the expenditure, Lee cited the testimony of Vernon County Highway Commissioner Marcellus Roidt, who reported that after the 1951 flood, a sum of $126,000 was spent in replacing bridges alone ($1,184,517 in 2018 dollars).

Flood control in the main branch of the Kickapoo would not be developed under the PL-566 program because the Army Corps of Engineers was developing plans for that part of the watershed. The one exception was the Norwalk Dam built in Monroe County.

Damages described

In the ‘West Fork Kickapoo Work Plan for Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention,’ originally published in May 1961, several accounts of West Fork residents helped to establish the community’s decision to move forward with the dam construction project:

Mrs. Lehrbach of Bloomingdale, in her diary of July 3, 1954, wrote: “Five-thirty p.m. – water was up to the sun porch and summer kitchen and basement full. Took garden and soil down to gravel. Two sheds, a barn, and a car belonging to a neighbor were swept away. Most of the neighbors lost their gardens. Lots of scouring was evident all over town.”

Other longtime residents in the West Fork Kickapoo – “Mr. and Mrs. Wold, Mr. Otto Clark, and Mr. Otto Widner – have recalled by diary or by interview that the bottomlands have flooded and floods have caused severe damage every three to ten years since the turn of the century. In recent years, major floods have occurred in 1951, 1954, and 1959.”

In August 1959, a storm of 50-year frequency caused severe damage to the entire West Fork except in the tributary controlled by the pilot project. The protection afforded by the two floodwater retarding structures in the pilot aroused the people living downstream and in adjoining tributaries, and an application for assistance under PL-566 was prepared.

In the Work Plan (WP) it was explained that the principal watershed problems are floodwater damages to agricultural land, bridges, urban areas and farm properties, and land damages or destruction by erosion or sedimentation.

The local sponsors requested that a plan be prepared which would protect most of the floodplain from damage by a flood of three-or-more year frequency. The land treatment and floodwater retarding structures to be installed would provide that level of protection.

PL-566 dams

After the benefit of the dams was established through comparison of damages in the area controlled by the pilot project dams and elsewhere after the 1959 flood, the application was submitted to build another eight flood control structures in the West Fork in 1961.

In the end, only seven of the eight structures were built: Jersey Valley, Clockmaker, Ostrem, Bishop Branch (Yttri-Primmer), Seasbranch, Jacobsen and Hidden Valley. These dams were completed between 1960 and 1971.

The total cost of the eight structures was projected to be $813,520 ($6,880,502 in 2018 dollars). The PL-566 program would cover $711,256 ($6,015,584 in 2018  dollars), and the local sponsor would pay for $102,264 ($864,917 in 2018 dollars).

Recreational development was added to the plan for the Jersey Valley Dam in 1964. The total cost of recreational development would be $55,420 ($468,726 in 2018 dollars) to be paid for 50/50 by the PL-566 program and the local sponsor.

2015 land transfer

After Jersey Valley and Sidie Hollow Dams were completed, the land was transferred to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for $1, and Vernon County was given an easement to develop, operate and maintain the dams and parks created on the properties. The easement also granted the county the right to control public use of the land and required that the public have access to the lakes created by the dams. The DNR reserved certain management rights in the easement, particularly timber harvest obligations.

In 2015, the two parcels were transferred from the DNR to Vernon County for the price of $596,000. Vernon County’s objective was to enroll the lands into the County Forest Program for optimum production of forest products, and continued public recreational access.


In the Work Plan it was specified that the Vernon County Soil and Water Conservation District would maintain the floodwater retarding structures, and the Vernon County Board would furnish the funds needed for the maintenance of all structures.

The inspection and maintenance program would include:

1. An annual inspection of all structures to determine maintenance needs and effectiveness of the maintenance programs.

2. An inspection after every severe storm to determine damage which will require immediate attention.

3. An annual appropriation to create a maintenance fund to be held in escrow so that money will be immediately available for needed repairs.

4. The inspection will be made by a representative of the district supervisors, the County Highway Commissioner, a representative of the West Clinton Watershed Association, and representatives of the Soil Conservation Service.

5. A specific agreement for maintenance will be prepared and signed by the district supervisors prior to the invitation for bids for constructing any structure.

The annual cost of operation and maintenance was projected to be $1,568, based on projected long-term prices ($13,262 in 2018 dollars).

Landowners and farm operators would install and maintain the land treatment program accomplished through a district cooperator agreement with the Vernon and Monroe County Soil and Water Conservation Districts respectively. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Wisconsin Conservation Department would furnish technical assistance.

PL-566 funds would provide $14,000 for technical assistance to accelerate the establishment of land treatment measures. Private landowners were required to install the measures at a cost of $58,469.

Jersey Valley

In 1964, when the agreement to develop the Jersey Valley Dam as a recreational facility was signed, a revised list of responsibilities was included for that property:

1. An inspection of the structure and recreational facilities will be made at least once each year, and after every severe flood by the Chairman of the Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors, the President of the West Clinton Watershed Association, the Chairman of the Highway and Park Committee, and a representative of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. These parties will decide and agree upon the required maintenance to the structure.

2. The inspection will include all portions of the structure and the channel downstream from the structure.

3. Water, fish and forest management will be accomplished by the local sponsor with technical assistance furnished by the Wisconsin Conservation Department for the maximum public use of all facilities.

4. The local sponsor will provide custodial, policing, sanitation, safety, and other operational services.

5. A specific operation and maintenance agreement will be prepared and executed before construction bids are issued.

The estimated average annual operation, replacement, and maintenance cost is $6,220 ($50,740 in 2018 dollars), and consists of the following:

·       Replacement (basic facilities) - $2,361 ($19,260 in 2018 dollars)

·       Maintenance recreational facilities - $1,724 ($14,064 in 2018 dollars)

·       Maintenance of structure - $435 ($3,549 in 2018 dollars)

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