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Thermal Issues on the West Fork of the Kickapoo River

This article originally appeared in Spring 2024 issue of WisTrout, the newsletter of Wisconsin Trout Unlimited. It appears here with some enhancements that this online source allows. Follow the links and watch the videos in addition to reading the article.


The 2018 floods in our part of the Driftless Area were historic by any measure, and this is in a place no stranger to flood events. It has been five, going on six years, since up to 14 inches of rain fell on the ridge that separates the West Fork of the Kickapoo River watershed from the Coon Creek / Timber Coulee watershed and resulted in unprecedented floods. Five dams, including the Jersey Valley dam on the headwaters of the West Fork failed, exacerbating the effects of the floods. The aftermath of the floods is still seen in Coon Valley, Chaseburg, Bloomingdale, and Avalanche and along the streams and their floodplains. Damage in the area was estimated at $14 million. I still find it quite amazing that no loss of life occurred from the floods though many people’s lives were drastically altered.

The video above, from the Driftless Symposium, is Ben Sellers M.S. research on the thermal dynamics of streams in the West Fork of the Kickapoo Watershed. It is a great overview of the current state of the watershed.


Many effects of the floods continue to linger today. Several houses no longer exist – though we can question the wisdom of allowing people to build in the floodplain to begin with. But progress is being made there. You may have been to the new Avalanche County Park which is where several homes once stood in the tiny town of Avalanche. The story is the same in several other towns along Coon Creek and the West Fork as well as the mainstem of the Kickapoo River.

A recent aerial image of the Jersey Valley Lake site. The current and former lake size are quite evident. (Source:  USDA NAIP Online Viewer, https://naip-usdaonline.hub.arcgis.com/)

 

Sometimes it is rather frustrating how slowly things happen, particularly after the initial cleanup efforts were so swift and productive. People came together and within days and weeks, the landscape started to look a good bit more like it did pre-flood. It was rather amazing to volunteer my time and watch how there were people everywhere helping out friends, neighbors, and strangers. Though that is not to say that things were back to normal but, in general, they have gotten much better through a lot of effort.

 

In the aftermath of the floods, the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council was formed to deal with issues – including flood risk – in their watershed. They have made great strides at improving land use practices and finding ways to compensate landowners for conservation practices like planting cover crops, contour strips, grade stabilization structures, and more. Over the watershed divide, the West Fork Sports Club put a ton of work into getting the clubhouse and grounds functioning. A new “tiny house” cabin replaced the old blue cabin that was destroyed in the 2018 floods. And the campground is back to normal – I’d go as far as to say a new, better normal. It is nice to see some small wins.

The “old blue cabin” at the West Fork after the 2018 floods. It has been replaced with a “tiny house” cabin on a trailer that can be moved out of harm’s way.


However, it has been a tale of two watersheds. Your inland trout stamp dollars – and some funds from Coulee Region TU and other organizations - have been used to repair flood damage to Bohemian Valley, Spring Coulee, Timber Coulee, and Rullands Coulee Creeks in the Coon Creek Watershed. There is still damage created by floods along these streams but they have been returned to a very good condition. Given the incredibly productive environment through which they flow, they have rebounded quickly. As someone that fishes these streams more than just about anyone else, I can say that have been fishing great since the flood, even in the heat and weeds of this past summer.

Warm water temperatures are nothing new for the West Fork but they've gotten much warmer than they had been before the Jersey Valley dam breached in 2018.

The same cannot be said for the West Fork of the Kickapoo River. Five years later, Jersey Valley Lake is currently at 26 acres; historically the lake was 57 acres. Most significantly, without the lake being deep enough for the bottom draw dam to keep the river below cool, the river has never been warmer and is often well above temperatures suitable for trout. The West Fork has experienced five rough years since the dam failures. The river always got warm in warm summers but nothing like we have seen these past five years. I have never recorded higher temperatures on the West Fork than I have in the past 5 years. My current record is 79°F but I know others that have measured up to 81°F. I have recorded early morning temperatures, after an evening of cooling, above 70°F.  I still use the West Fork Sports Club as a base camp, however, in recent years, I rarely fish the river itself. This is especially true from the campground up to the dam, the area most affected by Jersey Valley’s current state. From my own and others’ experiences, the fish have gotten smaller and less numerous, but you would expect that given the river’s thermal issues that are aggravated by the Jersey Valley Dam situation.


While the West Fork has been on the decline, there are plans to rectify the situation. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) has been actively working on planning for the removal of 14 dams in the Coon Creek Watershed and 8 dams in the West Fork Kickapoo Watershed. This would begin with the removal of five dams that are ranked as high hazard dams. The plan also includes rebuilding the Jersey Valley dam downstream approximately 1,000 feet from the current dam. The construction of a new Jersey Valley dam was proposed due to a high benefit to cost ratio and public input that supported the recreational value of the lake.

A Brook Trout from one of the West Fork of the Kickapoo River tributaries. These Brook Trout restoration sites have some of the highest Brook Trout densities anywhere in the state.


Public meetings were held in Coon Valley and Cashton on January 18th about the proposed plans and their alternatives. Draft Watershed Plan and Programmatic Environmental Impact Statements were created for each watershed and more information is available at:  https://www.wfkandccwatersheds.com/. Comments have closed recently and there will be a 30-to-45-day window for the NRCS to respond to comments. The plan could be part of the federal register as soon as April 1st and a decision on the plan would by made within 30 days. Dam decommissioning is scheduled for 2025 and 2026. I have not seen a timeframe for the construction of the new Jersey Valley dam but would assume its completion would be in 2026 at the earliest. Cost of the projects in the Coon Creek Watershed are approximately $4.4 million, whereas work in the West Fork Watershed will be nearly $25.5 million with about $16 million associated with the Jersey Valley dam construction. The planning process adds another $1.6 million dollars to these costs. These costs, of course, are subject to change.

Brook Trout population densities
Brook Trout densities from a number of Drifless Area streams - the three highest are from tributaries in the West Fork Watershed.

Coulee Region Trout Unlimited organized a campaign to inform the planning process about the importance of the Seas Branch and Maple Dale Brook Trout restoration sites. Original plans are to “V-notch” all the dams which would almost certainly allow Brown Trout to recolonize these Brook Trout restoration sites. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and others have put a huge amount of time and effort into the restoration of native Brook Trout which would almost certainly be lost to invasive Brown Trout. With the help of Kirk Olson, fisheries biologist out of the La Crosse office, we are working to be sure that barriers to Brown Trout encroachment remain at those sites as well as Jersey Valley. In reviewing some fisheries data from Kirk, the density of Brook Trout in these restoration sites are some of the highest in the state. It would be a major blow to the area to lose these unique, native Brook Trout populations.

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Hopefully, the Coon Creek Community Watershed Council will build dams on the ridge before the 243 miles of gullies going through the woods down into Coon Creek and the tributaries. (Bostwick Creek Watershed in La Crosse County is having many dams built on the ridge before gullies is a great example to study)

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