SOLDIERS GROVE — The floods still come, but there is less worry in this northern Crawford County village.
For nearly 40 years, Main Street here has been absent hardware and grocery stores, the library, post office, fire department, bars and cafés.
But community remains, on higher ground, out of the reach of the Kickapoo River.
After decades of devastating floods, Soldiers Grove began working in the 1970s on what would become a $6 million relocation plan. By 1983, nearly 50 businesses and homes in the downtown were demolished, with new structures constructed on higher land along Highway 61 on the village’s southeast side.
The relocation has saved the community from further disasters that would have been almost guaranteed in 2007, 2008, 2018 and 2019. In each of those years, heavy rains pushed the river over its banks and flooded the valley. Only instead of homes and businesses in harm’s way, the former downtown now hosts a campground, park, tennis courts, veterans memorial and a rodeo ring, all relatively easy and less costly to repair.
Other communities, to some extent, have followed the example of Soldiers Grove. But one of those who advocated for what was then a controversial move argues in a new book that many more communities around the country will likely need to follow suit.
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In “The Creeks Will Rise” (Chicago Review Press), William Becker, a policy expert on energy, climate change and disaster prevention and recovery, says climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of storms; 92,000 aging dams, levees and sea walls need costly repair; while an estimated 140 million people live within reach of floods along the nations 3.5 million miles of rivers and 95,000 miles of shoreline.
Becker believes federal policies that allow new construction in floodplains and homeowners to “flood proof” their homes by elevating them above the perceived 100-year flood level need to be changed. There should be more emphasis on government buyouts and relocating people and businesses out of flood-prone areas.
“We may assume we have the right to live almost anywhere we want in a free society,” Becker writes. “But if we choose to live at risk, we should not expect others to be responsible for the consequences. That should be the principle for a new national disaster policy.”
In the 1970s, Becker, a Vietnam veteran, was the publisher of the Kickapoo Scout, a weekly newspaper. Becker, whose office floor was rotting due to past floods, was one of the first people to recommend the move to higher ground and found himself in a firestorm of controversy about his proposal.
Becker would go on to write for The Associated Press and Wisconsin State Journal, but for 15 years served as a senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy. In 2007, Becker founded the Presidential Climate Action Project to develop policy recommendations on climate and energy security.
In his deeply researched book, Becker draws on his past experiences in Soldiers Grove and in government to lay out the case for more relocation efforts and for a better understanding of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. At its core the act was designed to “help the nation achieve a new vision for the relationship between society and the natural world,” Becker writes in the second half of the book, which focuses on the environment, economy and man-made disasters.
A return visit
After living in Colorado for nearly two decades, Becker, 74, is back in Wisconsin and returned late last month to Soldiers Grove for the first time in 30 years. He toured the business district, its streets with names like Passive Sun Drive, Sunshine Boulevard and Sunhill Road, a nod to when passive solar equipment was required for each building in the new development.
Driftless Brewing Co. and Solar Meats are recent additions to the community and have appeared near longtime businesses like Desperado’s Wonder Bar, Solar Town Pharmacy, People’s State Bank, John’s TV and Soldiers Grove Health Services, a nursing home founded in the valley in 1958.
“It’s still a beautiful setting, as you can see, tucked between the hills here,” Becker said, as he stood in a courtyard of the development. “I’ve helped other towns do similar things, but it’s a really difficult process. I tell other communities that they really have to be ready for a lot of emotions.”
For its first 10 years beginning in 1971, the library here was located in the floodplain. The current facility, next to the Wonder Bar, has been expanded over the years and includes a room of history that details the village’s past. Flooding is a central topic.
The library’s books include one illustrated by school children that gives their perspectives of the 2007 floods. Another, “Stories from the Flood: A Reflection of Resilience” (Driftless Writing Center), created in 2019, is a compilation of photographs and stories from flood survivors along the Kickapoo River.
Sarah DiPadova, who is just the third librarian in the village, is grateful her books, newspapers, magazines and archives are no longer in harm’s way.
“I think it would be one of those things where you’d always be worried about what you have in your library that is historical,” said DiPadova, whose husband grew up in the village. “You don’t want (your collection) to get destroyed.”
A brief history
The first major flood in the village came in 1907 with others in 1912 and 1917. A flood in 1935 led Soldiers Grove and other communities along the Kickapoo River to petition Congress for a flood-control project. The request was put on hold during World War II and the Korean War while another major flood hit in 1951. In 1962, a plan was approved that called for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to construct a dam 21 miles to the north along with a levee in Soldiers Grove.
But in 1974, the state required the village to pass a floodplain zoning ordinance that prohibited any new building in the business district and placed strict limitations on maintenance and repairs to existing buildings. A year later, the dam project, which would have created a 1,780-acre reservoir, was halted over environmental concerns, budget overruns and a UW-Madison study that showed the lake would quickly silt in and the dam would not be a cure-all for flooding issues. The levee was also scrapped after the project came in at $3.5 million, more than three times the value of the property it was designed to protect.
That’s when the village began buying farmland for the new site. Another flood, the largest at that point in village history, hit in 1978 and largely galvanized the community with its decision to relocate, according to the village’s website. And what would have been a reservoir near LaFarge is now the 8,600-acre Kickapoo Valley reserve, home to hiking trails, camping, cross-country skiing and stands of hemlock, white pine, maple and oak.
Soldiers Grove, it turns out, remains a model for other communities to follow.
“The inescapable reality is that the flood-control strategy of the 20th century cannot work in the 21st,” Becker writes. “Our national water policy should be to avoid floods, not control them.”
In Wisconsin, some communities have already followed Soldiers Grove’s lead.
Gays Mills spent more than $10 million to move much of its business district and some residents out of the Kickapoo River floodplain after devastating floods in 2007 and 2008. Rock Springs in Sauk County recently removed its community center and business district out of the path of the flood-prone Baraboo River while in the town of Spring Green, $7 million was spent after the 2008 floods to remove 14 homes and a hotel from a low spot that had became prone to flooding due to runoff from the nearby hills.
In Jefferson County, where the Rock and Crawfish rivers inundated communities along their banks in 2008, the county spent $8.8 million in federal, state and local money to buy and remove 50 properties from flood zones.
Back in Soldiers Grove, Art Olson remembers the flood of 1951 when cars floated down Main Street. Last month, Olson found himself dog sitting and walking 13-year-old Coco along the same street. Only it looked nothing like it did when he was a youth when he played basketball and attended dances in the old auditorium that has since been removed.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” Olson, 87, said. “But it was necessary. That river is vicious when it gets going.”
Photos: Soldiers Grove, its flood-prone past and move to higher ground
“We may assume we have the right to live almost anywhere we want in a free society. But if we choose to live at risk, we should not expect others to be responsible for the consequences.”
William Becker, author of “The Creeks Will Rise”