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Recent floods remind Gays Mills residents of dam project that never happened


GAYS MILLS, Wis. (WSAU) -- The recent flooding in several parts of Wisconsin brings up memories of a flood control project that was never finished. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the federal government bought up land in the Kickapoo River valley near Gays Mills and Soldier’s Grove with the intent to build a dam as a means of flood control.

3rd District Congressman Ron Kind says that plan to build a dam is not going to happen. “That’s over. It’s not moving forward. In fact, the land interest that the federal government had has been returned back to the state. The state now has turned that valley, or at least that portion of the valley into a Kickapoo Reserve, which has been a magnet for tourism and outside people coming to visit a very beautiful stretch.”

The reserve now has hiking trails and a nature center, which hosts many tourists and school groups every year.

Kind says the federal government changed it’s mind after acquiring much of the land, and built the nature preserve instead of the dam. “That’s the area that would have been dammed up if the Kickapoo Dam had gone forward, but the decision was made that it wouldn’t have been cost effective. The land is put to better use, and it’s land that is more conducive to that water spreading out from time to time.”

Kind says there was a great deal of friction and division about buying up land to build a dam, and then never completing it, but he believes the present use is the right one. “There’s been a good partnership all along, from federal, state, to private and native American interests (which) have come together in order to create this reserve, and it was probably the best thing that could come out of a dam project that was very controversial at the time. The buy up of that land to create a dam, and then not having it move forward, it did cause some division within those communities.”

Of course, doing nothing on the dam means one of Wisconsin’s most unpredictable rivers still floods every few years. Kind says much of the community of Gays Mills is moving to higher ground. “I have a major relocation project for Gays Mills, as we speak, moving them to higher ground, the same that happened to Soldier’s Grove about a decade ago, and trying to mitigate the effects of high water.”

Many Gays Mills residents and businesses have moved away from the old part of town in the lower floodplain, but Kind says not all of them. “Some have elected to remain, because you can’t by law force anyone to give up their property, but they’re also contending with flood insurance issues as a consequence, too. It’s a hard decision for some people to make because it’s been in the family for generations and they don’t want to walk away from it.”

The post office, a gas station, and a couple of other businesses have moved to higher ground. So have many homeowners.

It’s still an issue that stirs debate in the Crawford County community.