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Controversial dam’s history provided a plethora of insight
In LaFarge
Steinmetz at LaFarge Dam tower
BRAD STEINMETZ, eminent LaFarge historian, talks with interested citizens about the history of the LaFarge Dam project. Steinmetz stands in the shadow of the concrete tower that was to have controlled release of water from the impoundment (lake) above the dam.

LA FARGE - The painful and contentious history of the Army Corps of Engineers plan to build a flood control dam on the Kickapoo River north of LaFarge contains many insights for those dealing with the same or similar issues today. 

There’s no doubt that the watershed continues to be faced with many of the same problems today. Flooding, steep hillsides which increase the likelihood of catastrophic runoff, the connection between land use and quantity of runoff, and a fractured sandstone bedrock which appears to be unsuitable for placement of flood control structures remain challenges. Add to that, lack of finances to grapple with the problem and reliance on the political will to achieve flood control goals. It seems, some things never change. 

Perhaps what has changed the most is the newer problem of climate change. It is fueling precipitation events that those who built and planned to build dams in the 60s and 70s simply couldn’t imagine or plan for.

The process to try to build the dam extended over a period of 60 years, from its launch in the aftermath of the 1935 Kickapoo River Flood, to 1995 when the Kickapoo Valley Reserve was created. The project was deauthorized by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1975. But the effort to accomplish flood control in the valley and determine the fate of the 9,000 acre property created by buyouts continued into the 1990s.

LaFarge historian Brad Steinmetz led a tour and talk on Saturday, May 22 at the site where the LaFarge Dam was to have been built. The site is just north of the Village of LaFarge, on the southern end of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.

The cement tower that was to have controlled the release of water from the 1,800-acre impoundment (lake) behind the dam stands as a ghostly reminder of the history of the landscape.

Steinmetz with 'That Dam History' book
‘THAT DAM HISTORY’ is the book written by Brad Steinmetz about the LaFarge Dam project, and the long and heroic story of local citizens fighting for state and federal help in controlling flooding on the Kickapoo River.

In the opening to his book, ‘That Dam History,’ Steinmetz debunks many of the theories about what prevented the dam from being built. The book is fascinating, and well worth a read.

According to Steinmetz, reasons popularly attributed for the dam not being built that weren’t actually the reason include:

• Sierra Club lawsuits  - the club lost every lawsuit they undertook to try to stop the dam 

• Endangered plant species like Northern Monkshood or Arctic Primrose – the Endangered Species Act was not enacted by Congress until 1976 

• Senator Gaylord Nelson – the senator continued to support the project for flood control even after it was deauthorized – his opposition was mainly to the lake with poor water quality 

• Wisconsin DNR – the DNR worked side-by-side with the Corps in developing plans for the dam, and only began to back away late in the project when the water quality study revealed that the water quality of the lake would be poor 

• Senator William Proxmire – the senator supported the project longer than any other elected leader 

• UW water quality study – while the study projected poor water quality, it also projected that the lake’s water quality would be similar to other manmade lakes in the state used heavily for recreation, such as Governor Dodge State Park or Lake Redstone in Sauk County 

• Governor Patrick Lucey  - even though Lucey, when elected, ordered the Corps to conduct an “intensive review” of the project, that review did not stop the dam, but offered suggestions about measures that could be undertaken to improve water quality and complement the dam’s flood control benefit

• Corps management – the process of the land acquisition for the dam created resentment in the area, and though the Corps was blamed for the ever-escalating costs of the project which were part of the reason the dam was never built, most of the reasons for those escalating costs were outside of their control. Near constant delays and the continual need for studies all came with a price tag, and the amazing rise in interest rates in the 1970s were all contributing factors in the rise in costs 

• Canoeing – although canoeists in the 1970s were all under suspicion of being environmentalists dedicated to stopping the dam, the rise in the economy of canoeing eventually came to be an economic factor that had to be taken into consideration. 

Why was it stopped?

According to Steinmetz, Al Anderson, a UW-Extension community economic development facilitator, suggested an answer:

“He [Anderson] said that if the project had been started five years earlier than it was, the federal government would have purchased all the land, the dam would have been completed and the lake would have stretched north up the valley. Lake LaFarge would have become a reality in the northern Kickapoo Valley. However, Anderson went on to say that if the dam project had come along five years after it did, the project never would have been started. No land would have been purchased for the project, no dam construction would have begun and no waters of a lake would ever have appeared. The project would never have passed the muster of the new national environmental laws or the economics of the time even to get started. Only by fitting into the exact time slot that it did, when national environmental awareness with accompanying laws and regulations were coming into being, when political instability for such federal water-control projects became the norm and when the nation’s interest rates were rapidly rising, partly due to the spending for the American War in Vietnam, could the story of the dam project at LaFarge play out the way it did.”

Insights for today

Even after the LaFarge Dam project was deauthorized in 1975, efforts to resurrect the effort, find other ways to accomplish flood control in the Kickapoo River Valley, and determine the fate of the nearly 9,000 acres of land purchased for the project continued well into the 1990s.

But throughout the history of the LaFarge dam project, there were other good ideas that were put forward that could all be a part of the portfolio of solutions going forward. 

Many would have addressed the reason that building a wet dam with a lake behind it was abandoned, by improving water quality and reducing runoff. Others might address the ongoing problem of financing to maintain, repair and improve existing structures, or to build new ones. And yet others will address the seeming escalating risk of greater and greater floods due to the increased precipitation events attributed to climate change.

 For instance, after five flood control dams breached in the historic flood of August 2018, we are learning that anchoring large flood control structures to fractured sandstone bedrock in the hillsides is a risky proposition. Even the ongoing discussion of building only a dry dam at the LaFarge dam site would suffer from this problem, as did the Mlsna dam in the West Fork Kickapoo, and the three breached flood control dams in the Coon Creek watershed in 2018.

Additional ideas include:

• taking a regional or watershed-wide approach to the problem to ensure that the entire valley afflicted by flooding speaks with a unified voice, and to ensure that flood control solutions that benefit the entire watershed don’t overload just one or two counties with an unrealistic financial burden

• focusing on land use treatments that reduce the quantity of runoff entering the watershed

• evacuating people and businesses in harms way out of the floodplain

• zoning to enforce land use in the watershed, especially in shoreland and floodplain areas 

• setting up a watershed-wide flood warning system to help communities respond as proactively as possible to get citizens out of harms way and protect property and businesses. The Monroe County Climate Change Task Force has already begun this process in the Kickapoo and Little LaCrosse River watersheds

• investing in upgrades and even relocations of the sewage systems in the river communities in the watershed, and also increasing wetlands which would have both a flood water storage capacity feature, but also a water purifying benefit to address nutrient loading.


In the coming month, LaCrosse, Monroe and Vernon counties will hear from USDA-NRCS about options to address the breached dams in the West Fork Kickapoo and Coon Creek watersheds. They will also hear recommendations about how best to address flooding in the watersheds.

It is likely that their conclusions will find structural problems with not just the breached dams, but also the intact dams. This may put at least the future of the breached dams in question as a flood control option.

So, it is also likely that the valley will need to consider (again) a portfolio of structural and non-structural solutions to the flooding problems. This becomes ever more urgent as climate change continues to fuel greater and greater intensities of storm events in this region, across the nation, and really, across the globe.

Two things haven’t changed over all the years that citizens and agencies have attempted to grapple with the problem of flooding in Southwest Wisconsin. Those are the steep hills and valley terrain, and the fractured karst bedrock of the area. This unchanging reality will no doubt feature prominently in the coming discussions, and likely set natural limits on the options available.

WFK and CC Watershed Planning logo

The process of determining the fate of the dams that breached in the historic 2018 rain event and flooding will continue later this month. Below is a notice for scoping meetings where USDA-NRCS will solicit public input on options for flood control in the West Fork Kickapoo and Coon Creek watersheds:

La Crosse, Monroe, and Vernon counties, in partner-ship with the Natural Re-sources Conservation Ser-vice (NRCS), are preparing watershed plans and envi-ronmental impact state-ments (EIS) for both the Coon Creek and West Fork Kickapoo watersheds to address flooding and the failed flood control dams. 

Alternatives include dam decommissioning, replace-ment of the dams, conserva-tion practices in the upper watershed to reduce runoff, and improvements down-stream of the dams to reduce flooding or mitigate flood damages.  

Information gathered from agencies, interested parties, and the public on a range of possible alternatives will aid in refining the alternatives, identifying potential envi-ronmental issues, and selec-tion of a preferred alterna-tive. 

Information regarding the proposed alternatives will be available on the project website at least one week prior to the first meeting, If you would like mapping in hard copy for-mat, please contact Keri Hill, Project Manager, at the contact below.

The West Fork Kickapoo Watershed meeting will be held on June 22 at the Cash-ton Community Hall, 812 Main Street, Cashton, WI at 5:30 p.m. 

The Coon Creek Water-shed meetings will be held on June 23 at the Coon Valley Legion Hall, 105 Park St, Coon Valley, WI, at 5:30 p.m. 

The meeting will follow current COVID-19 guide-lines. As of the publication of this notice, COVID-19 restrictions will include face masks and limited seating. Chairs will be spaced every six feet. Only one repre-sentative from each house-hold should attend in-person. Remote viewing of the live presentation will be available through Microsoft Teams; visit the project website at for the web link and instructions. 

Written comments will be accepted through July 16 and recorded in the public record. Written comments can be (i) presented at the meetings, (ii) submitted through Microsoft Teams during the meetings, (iii) submitted on the project website, (iv) emailed to, or (v) mailed to Sundance Consulting, 305 N. 3rd Ave, Ste B, Pocatello, ID 83201. Verbal comments may be left via voicemail at 208-550-2056. 

Services for persons with disabilities will be made available if notice is re-ceived in advance of the meeting by calling or email-ing Keri Hill at 208-550-2056,