BY JENNIFER BAILEY
DANVILLE — Local fisherwoman Ann Wells said people travel hundreds of miles to catch “smallies” — smallmouth bass — like we have in our own backyard.
She and her husband have caught 60 in an afternoon. Of course, they put them all back, she said.
In an e-mail to Illinois Department of Natural Resources and other officials titled “Save our River! Our Smallmouth Haven!” she said, “There is nothing like a 4-pound Bronze back pulling on the other end of your line putting up a terrific fight. An even better feeling is releasing the lunker to fight again. Once the river is drained, our trophy smallmouth haven will be gone forever.”
She and other fishermen don’t want to see the Vermilion River and Ellsworth Park dams removed. They say the depth of the water and fish supplies will suffer.
In addition to her e-mail, Wells also has started a petition with bass clubs against the dam removals.
In early February, IDNR responded to Wells’ e-mail stating that “your comments along with the comments of other residents of the Danville area have and will be taken into consideration during further planning considerations of the potential project. Consideration is being given to recreational benefits, ecosystem health, economics of construction, maintenance costs of the dam and most importantly safety to the users of this public water.”
Wells said no one will be able to access the river in order for recreation.
She said once the dam behind the jail is removed the water level will drop about 10 feet. Wells said the main river now varies from a couple of feet deep to a depth of 12 feet.
The public can now walk across the portion behind the old General Motors plant. Once the level is reduced, the public will need to carry their canoes and no other boats will be able to access, she said.
She adds that the Ellsworth Park boat ramp would become “the ramp to nowhere.”
The boat ramp improvements cost $159,820. Funding came from a $153,000 state grant and $6,000 from the city’s capital improvement fund. The city also provided a $24,000 funding match in the form of city staff labor.
Wells also is concerned about the potential invasion of Asian carp into the river. The Illinois River is infested with the fast-growing, aggressive and adaptable fish that are out-competing native fish species for food and habitat.
Removing the dam also will destroy the habitat that has allowed smallmouth bass to grow to 4-plus pounds. They won’t have the deep holes to feed and hibernate during the winter months, according to Wells.
She sympathizes with the families of those who drowned due to water conditions at the dams, but points out that danger exists in other lakes and rivers.
Wells said the city could do more to alert boaters to the dangers.
She said the state can use the money earmarked for the dam removals to install a stepped spillway or rock ramp that would eliminate the dangerous roller effect in the water on the backside of the low-head dams.
IDNR research showed that rather than tearing the dams out, a slope could be installed on the backside to secure the dams and prevent boil when the river is in flood stage.
Wells, who has been fishing in tournaments since 1984, and other concerned citizens think the city has another agenda, too, with riverfront development and other plans. The city wants the “free” money, she said.
Wells said she and the others who use the river know the river and the consequences of the dam removal.
Fisherman Jim King also questions whether the dams could be turned over to the Vermilion County Conservation District.
Another local fisherman and concerned citizen is Mike Carson. He formerly worked for the city mowing grass.
Carson doesn’t know why the issue of removing the dams has come back up. He attended the dam committee meetings going back to around 2005.
“The overall opinion was to leave the dams alone,” he said.
Those wanting the dams removed were a drowning victim’s father and his friend, Carson said.
Others were waiting for all state reports too, he added.
Carson said there are Asian carp below the dam now and if the dam is removed, they will proceed to eat all the other fish’s plankton, etc.
“I fished the Wabash all my life. It’s terrible,” he said of the Asian carp invasion. “It’s nothing like it was.”
Carson doesn’t believe the removal of the dams will improve sporting in the area.
“People can’t get down there now with a boat ...,” he said.
He also adds, “you can’t stop accidents.”
Carson again said he thought this issue was “over and done with. The state of Illinois has no business jumping on this at all.”
He said the state has enough problems with paying its bills. Using money for this is “ridiculous,” he added.
“I don’t know why it’s come back up again,” he said, adding that he thinks the issue is partly casino related.
The Ellsworth Park dam was built in 1931-1932 to make the water deeper upriver to the north, where the city built a swimming beach. That was cheaper than building a public swimming pool. There was a swimming area at Ellsworth Park and a pavilion on the east bank.
Swimming has been prohibited at Ellsworth Park for many years, but the dam remains.
The Vermilion River dam was constructed in 1914. It’s a low-head, run-of-river concrete dam across the Vermilion River.
The Danville Street Railway and Light Co. obtained a permit from the Rivers and Lakes Commission to build the dam pursuant to an order dated Aug. 19, 1914. The Danville Street Railway & Light Co. merged into Illinois Power and Light Corp. in 1923.
A license to repair the dam was granted to General Motors Corp. on June 30, 1970. It alleged that continued impoundment of the water was essential to its industrial operations.
GM used the dam as a water intake for its upstream manufacturing facility, which operated a foundry.
In 1972, Illinois Power Co. conveyed the property, and others, to the city. All the property conveyed was at the city’s request for an urban renewal project.
The dam has been deteriorating and no longer serves as a water intake structure.
The 220-foot wide dam is the only dam/obstruction on the Vermilion River in east central Illinois. The dam is about 1,300 feet downstream of the north-south Illinois Route 1 (Gilbert Street) bridge.
Removing the dam would connect the Wabash River, the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi River, with the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.
Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said safety is first and foremost a concern for the city — for those using the river and also emergency responders.
The dam removals also can increase tourism opportunities, he said.
City officials have long talked about riverfront development opportunities.
He said city officials will review the IDNR’s report about the options, other than removals, to make the river safer.
Cost and where funding is coming from is a factor, Eisenhauer said.