Wading out the Kickapoo River Flood

Kickapoo River covers a roadway in muddy water.

Ominous clouds percolated above the horizon. The long rumble of thunder reminded me to check my phone for an update on the radar: there were thirty minutes before it was absolutely necessary to scramble up the steep river banks, pack up the survey equipment, and escape out of the valley. As I finished my last few transect elevation measurements, a tedious process that involves taking about 50 height measurements every few inches across a stream channel, the rain came pouring down. After the brief time it took to pack up in the torrential rain, Conway Creek had already begun to swell. I had been told flash floods happened quickly, but it was difficult to understand just how fast the water would rise. In less than an hour, the knee-deep water I had been wading in would be over my head.

This was my introduction to flooding in the Kickapoo River Watershed, but the risk and devastation that accompanies floods and saturated floodplains is not a new reality for those who call this place home. In fact, the history of the entire Driftless Area has been woven, in part, from the fabric of catastrophic flood events.

A map shows the watery world of the Driftless Area.

Abundant streams flow through Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Kickapoo River Watershed is situated in the southwestern corner of Wisconsin, in a tri-state region known more broadly as the Driftless, because of its singular absence of glacial drift. The Driftless region’s iconic upland plateaus, steep valley sides, and dendritic stream systems—picture waterways spread like the branches of a tree—are unique topographic features of this unglaciated landscape, and together they have shaped the history of Driftless flooding. When it rains, all that water coursing through the landscape builds in strength and quantity as it rushes downstream into the valleys.

Human action has made its own mark on this landscape. In the 19th century, Anglo-settler communities brought with them agricultural practices that initiated widespread erosion, washing upland sediment into the region’s valleys. This sediment, referred to as “post-settlement alluvium,” coats valley floors throughout the region, in some areas raising the valley floor up several meters above levels from only 150 years ago—a problem that is only exacerbated by continued land use practices that cause erosion beyond what would occur through natural processes of erosion. By raising stream banks and disconnecting floodplains, post-settlement alluvium decreases the ability of these systems to respond to flood events. The riparian banks raised by sediment deposits reduce the stream’s ability to slow the flow and dissipate the energy of the water, which often results in powerful flash floods.

The frequency of powerful and destructive flood events has increased over the last decade, as Curt Meine described in a recent blog post. This most recent event broke records across the Driftless, causing damage similar to or worse than that wrought by the historic 2008 floods. Increasing rainfall and storm severity have exacerbated regional flooding problems in the Driftless, which is becoming a regular casualty of a changing, and intensifying, climate. Between August 26 and September 5 of this year, portions of southwestern Wisconsin received up to a staggering 23.42” of rainfall. The intensity of this flood event left communities across the region cleaning up and mucking out their farms, homes, businesses, and community shared spaces.

Kickapoo Buffer Project

Given this history of catastrophic flooding, you might be wondering what I was doing in Conway Creek, in the middle of the Driftless, with a historic storm approaching, fielding frantic text messages from my advisor, Dr. Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, and project co-director, Dr. Eric Booth. As a graduate research assistant new to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my job since July has consisted of fending off cattle (including one especially terrifying bull) from transects and measuring tapes, identifying riparian plants, taking photographs, and using laser survey equipment to collect bank and streambed relative elevation points, which are used later to recreate stream transect profiles. The stream transects that I meticulously measured and cataloged over the weeks prior to the August 2018 flood would cease to exist within the next few hours as the flood waters and cascades of displaced sediment remade the river banks entirely.

The history of the Driftless Area has been woven from the fabric of catastrophic flood events.

My work is part of the two-year-long Kickapoo Buffer Project, led by Booth and Druschke in collaboration with the Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort, Valley Stewardship Network, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Since Valley managers, conservationists, anglers, and landowners often hold differing views about how to best lessen flood impacts in the Kickapoo Valley, the project takes a social-ecological approach. This approach combines biophysical stream assessments with social science interviews and cross-disciplinary workshops that aim to provide a holistic view, integrating knowledge of the streams’ ecosystems and human perspectives on how best to manage these local resources.

My part in this project gave me a front row seat to August’s catastrophic floods. I was fortunate enough to wait out the worst of the torrential rainfall on high ground, and once the storms passed, I went back to our research sites. The photographs that follow share some of what I witnessed in the late-August flood events in the Kickapoo River Watershed as the river poured into homes, pastures, and town streets and re-shaped the river banks that I’d spent the summer getting to know. These images do not illustrate the personal tragedies and losses faced by so many people who live in the Driftless region—those stories are not mine to tell. Instead, the following images offer a snap-shot of the flood’s effects on landscapes of everyday life that are important to local human and nonhuman communities.

Soldiers Grove Community Green

When I stay overnight on field visits, I camp in the Soldiers Grove community green space, in what historically was the downtown area. The historic downtown was moved to higher elevation in 1978 following a series of catastrophic floods years prior. When I returned to Soldiers Grove to see my normal campsite the morning after the rains, the fields were an extension of the Kickapoo River, flowing through the community park that had offered not only a campground but a rodeo arena, public restrooms and showers, large ball fields, and a community picnic area and playground.

A historic downtown area is flooded by murky brown water as the Kickapoo River submerges the town.

A Cattle Pasture

Each time we drive to our research sites, we pass this pasture, which typically accommodates grazing cattle. On my way out of the Valley at the beginning of the rainfall, I watched a farmer work earnestly to move their cattle from this pasture to one on higher ground. If the cattle hadn’t been moved, many may have died or escaped as the entire pasture flooded—in some places, feet above the fence—and sections of fencing were broken or swept away completely with the rising waters. When the skies cleared and I returned, the empty pasture was filled with the Kickapoo River all the way to the edge of the road.

A large cattle pasture is barely visible under murky, brown water.

The Beaver Dam

After the flood waters receded, I returned to our study sites to find myself embarking on a journey down unfamiliar river corridors. Before the storm, the end of our Conway Creek site was marked by an old beaver dam, located just above the confluence with Tainter Creek. This dam did not have any recent beaver activity and had held back a large amount of sediment. The beaver dam blew out during the flood, sending much of this sediment downstream into Tainter Creek. Such a sudden cascade of sediment could pose real problems for Tainter Creek fish by smothering the substrates they need to reproduce or filling the pools they had previously lived in. However, it is also important to acknowledge that stream systems and habitats are fluid and that change, good and bad, is bound to occur—particularly as storm and rain events intensify in the “new normal” of climate change.

Conway Creek

Thanks to the frequent photographs I have taken as part of our survey protocol, we have a small but very visible record of micro-scale flood impacts in the Kickapoo Valley. While Wisconsin residents, and some readers across the country, have no doubt seen some birds’ eye views of this summer’s flooding, Dr. Druschke, Dr. Booth and I wanted to share this unique view of what happens on a small stream when the flood waters recede—both the damage and the glimmers of resilience that emerge.

The following two photographs make visible the flood-induced changes that occurred along the banks of a small creek. The photograph on the left shows the riparian vegetation prior to the flood, while the photograph on the right shows the impact of the flood on the streambank vegetation. Much of the vegetation has been washed away or knocked over, leaving exposed cobbles, gravels and soil. Banks with exposed soil are not as stable as those with deep-rooted vegetation. Without a system to hold the soil in place, it cannot resist the erosive power of the stream. Because the banks are composed partly of post-settlement alluvium, the sediment that will continue to rush into the water system is a natural aspect of the erosion process that has been exacerbated by historical—and continued— land use practices. In this close-up view, the entangled complexities among multiple realities and worlds emerge.


The following three photos show in-river changes at the same location—transect 050—before and after this summer’s flood. During the initial survey, a downed box elder crossed the stream directly below the transect. In the second photograph (taken directly after the rain stopped), the downed elder has been washed downstream, which has left an open pool and steep banks within view. The third photograph shows how the flood has eroded the banks and caused the shallow roots of the box elder (visible in the second photograph) to collapse into the stream, taking with it the habitats that had developed there.


Yet this micro-scale look at the creek also tells a more complicated story. In the first photographs of these series the water appears turbid. With the flood event, much of that sediment and silt material was swept downstream and deposited elsewhere. The subsequent photographs make visible the cleaned cobbles through clear water. Though the flood, being one extreme aspect of the hydrologic cycle, brought damage to property, homes, and businesses, it can also offer a renewal for substrate of the river bed and flush sediment and organic material through the system. And this flushing of the system offers the potential for a good salmonid spawning season; both native and nonnative trout species who reside in the Driftless region find exposed gravels a desirable spawning habitat. The staggering rain that wreaked havoc on the Kickapoo Watershed this summer is—but is not only—a story of loss.

Responsibility of Place-based Research

As cross-disciplinary and socio-ecological scientists, much of our research is attuned to the flows between social and ecological, biotic and abiotic worlds. We trace engagements and interactions and work to both understand and illuminate the entangled complexities among multiple realities and worlds: in this case, the recent flooding in the Kickapoo Watershed and the strength of the Driftless communities (human and non-human) to remain resilient in the face of destruction.

Research coincides with privilege.

Witnessing this flood take shape and move through the communities that we have come to care about through research and recreation has made us acutely aware of the simple fact that we can leave and go home. While my material life was safe just two hours to the east, this flood has left behind muck-filled homes and barns, broken fences, stagnant flood water, and pastures covered with debris and sediment. Being a researcher inherently coincides with privilege: privilege and access to knowledge, power to interpret and make meaning, and privilege to leave. As we grapple with these questions of ethics, responsibility and connections to place, as embedded researchers in the Driftless region, we advocate for owning the responsibility that comes with conducting place-based research and for searching out the opportunities to contribute back and support the communities and landscape that fuels our research, careers, and passions.

We hope that in sharing these photographs and this experience, we may compel readers interested in becoming involved, through monetary or material donations, or hands-on community service work, to attend fundraising events, and to offer support to flood-impacted communities. We have included a list of resources that can guide you through that service. We by no means have all the answers for how to balance research, privilege, ethical compassion, and obligation to communities in which we work, but we do believe that supporting communities we work with through times of disaster is necessary, as researchers and human beings.

The research described here is part of the two-year Kickapoo Buffer Project, led by Booth and Druschke in collaboration with the Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration EffortValley Stewardship Network, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and funded through the UW-Madison College of Agricultural & Life Sciences’ Kickapoo Valley Reforestation Fund with further support from the Global Health Institute and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.

All photographs by Emma Lundberg, 2018 and may be reproduced with permission from the authors.

Emma Lundberg is a graduate student in the Environment and Resources program through the Nelson Institute at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her dissertation research focuses on identifying and deconstructing settler logics that permeate through natural resource management. She uses social and ecological research approaches in salmonid management and river restoration. She takes a critical approach toward engaging with the space where humans and fish meet and offers a multispecies perspective on species interactions, human subjectivity, and environmental conflict. TwitterContact.

As a faculty member in the Department of English’s Program in Composition and Rhetoric and a current M.S. student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Dr. Caroline Gottschalk Druschke uses her training in rhetoric to build critical theory and conduct social and ecological research and public outreach about stream restoration, migratory fish passage, trout conservation, dam removal, wetlands restoration, and watershed-based agricultural outreach. Druschke’s work has been funded through the US Environmental Protection Agency, AAUW, the National Park Service, the National Science Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She is co-editor of the new book Field Rhetoric: Ethnography, Ecology, and Engagement in the Places of Persuasion (University of Alabama 2018). WebsiteTwitter. Contact.

Dr. Eric Booth studies the interactions between water, land, climate, and humans primarily using biophysical models and field monitoring. He also utilizes integrated scenarios (qualitative and quantitative) as a tool to explore possible futures of complex social-ecological systems at the watershed scale with a focus on the food-energy-water nexus. His research involves a strong public outreach component not only to disseminate relevant findings but to better understand local knowledge, experiences, and perspectives related to water and land. Website. Twitter. Contact.

5 Responses

  1. Bent Lauge Madsen says:

    Said the father of
    floodplain governance, Gilbert Fowler White 1945: “Floods are acts of God but flood losses are largely acts of men”. Man has stolen the floodplains, where the river would store the water. Prudent floodplain governance is to enhance the retention capacity in the catchments small streams (tributaries) and to restore the floodability of the larger streams floodplains. Good examples are emerging in the Charles River Catchments the upper Mississippi river basin, and European Elbe Catchment. In a smaller scale,Denmark has taken a bold step in a forthcoming new Watercourse act: Concerted catchment governance and reestablishment of “Water parking places” upstream floodprone areas. A new political insight is dawning : The floodplain belongs to the stream. “What nature has joined together man should not tear asunder”