BY JENNIFER BAILEY
Strong opinions about possible removal of the Vermilion River and Ellsworth Park dams resulted in the crowd of attendees becoming a little rowdy and boisterous to get their points heard.
More than 100 people attended Tuesday’s open house at the David S. Palmer Arena to hear an Illinois Department of Natural Resources presentation and voice their opinions about IDNR’s proposed partial removal of the Vermilion River Dam and full removal of the Ellsworth Park Dam.
The majority of the attendees, when polled, don’t want the dams removed.
There were about five attendees who raised their hands as being in support of the dam removals, and another handful who indicated they came to the meeting to listen and learn. That included some aldermen, such as Ward 6 Alderman Jon Cooper, who said he just came to listen to all sides.
“Leave it alone,” said resident John Nail. He’s concerned about the water depth and fishing opportunities.
L.J. Stevens, with 217 Extreme Fishing Club, also spoke about the dam removal causing a creek and big fish not liking knee-deep water.
He has about 600-700 signatures on petitions to save the dams.
Some audience members said there have been a low number of deaths at the dams and others asked whether the hospital or interstates should be removed since people die there.
Allyn Barnett, of Woodridge, father of Sandi Barnett, 24, who died in the latest dam drowning in 2003 took offense to some of the comments.
“Those fish are going to be in that river if the dam is there or not,” he said. “But for sure it’s going to be safer.”
He said maybe his daughter shouldn’t have been there canoeing, but “I’m never going to see her again.”
The majority of the meeting had IDNR representatives explaining its draft study, fish studies by the IDNR and Eastern Illinois University and addressing frequently asked questions.
City discussions about possibly removing the dams started 10 years ago.
IDNR representative Arlan Juhl said the study looks at public safety, ecological improvements and recreational enhancement. There have been fatalities at the dam and the dams also are in deteriorating condition.
The removal of the dam, and 19 others in the state, was identified by Gov. Pat Quinn last year as part of his dam removal initiative. The General Assembly appropriated funds for the Danville dam removals through bond sales that are part of the Jobs Now program. There also would be costs to the city for right-of-way acquisitions and utility relocations.
IDNR representative Loren Wobig said the open house was an “opportunity for information sharing. We’re interested in your comments.”
He said about conditions of the Danville Dam, there’s west abutment undercutting and erosion, east abutment undercutting, an eroded cap and concrete spalling at the dam face.
At the Ellsworth Park dam, there is west abutment erosion.
The dams study included sediment collection and testing, water surface modeling and environmental monitoring.
The partial dam removal is suggested for the Danville Dam to leave a section of the dam there, with rip rap to stabilize the banks as the center and west piers would be removed. The partial removal is similar to a full removal on how it acts.
“We will not be blowing up the dam,” said Wes Cattoor, another IDNR representative.
The cost of partial removal — about $1.8 million — is more expensive than full removal due to the rock placement along the channel banks to transition the existing channel bed from the upstream to downstream shape. Full removal must excavate the upstream material and doesn’t require work to stabilize the river banks.
The Ellsworth Park Dam removal also would see that area stabilized with rocks and also rip rap fill on the sides.
Sand and gravel bars will be exposed during low flows, but IDNR officials stated that the river won’t become a mud flat or go dry.
“You won’t be able to get through there,” one audience member yelled out.
Several audience members also laughed during portions of the IDNR presentation.
“The river will remain canoeable,” Cattoor said. He added that Kickapoo Landing also will be able to continue its canoeing to Ellsworth Park.
IDNR officials added the Ellsworth Park boat ramp will be affected, but not be unusable.
The percentage of time the boat ramp will be useable will be reduced from 99 percent to 45 percent in the long-term with 1 foot of water depth on the ramp.
According to the IDNR, upstream of the Main Street/U.S. 150 bridge, the water surface will drop less than 18 inches on normal flow conditions.
Downstream of the bridge, the water surface will drop less than 4 feet. This equates to an average depth going from 4.4 feet to 3.1 feet. During normal flow, the average width will go from 108 feet to 89 feet.
IDNR officials said fishing opportunities will remain. The smallmouth bass and other fish will still be there with the dam removals, they said, adding that the dams don’t serve as a barrier to Asian carp.
After IDNR officials gave their hour-plus presentation, city officials asked residents to ask questions one-on-one with IDNR officials. But those who want to save the dams, including Ann Wells, Sam Van Camp and Dennis Palmer, took to the front of the room to make comments about saving the national scenic river and modifying the dams instead of removing them.
Some audience members spoke loudly and were upset that IDNR officials didn’t take questions in front of the group. Police officers showed up to keep the peace.
IDNR officials said what happens next is largely based on the city’s decision. A timeline for a city decision, because the city owns the dams, is unknown.
The IDNR will have a finalized report in spring/summer.
IDNR officials said if the city decides to proceed with the partial and full removals — the state funding is limited to IDNR’s recommendations — a project sponsorship agreement stating what the state and city are responsible for would take about a month to complete, completing the permits and plans would take about nine months, the contractor selection process would take about three months and construction for the removal would take 10 months to complete.
Permits are required from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and IDNR/Office of Water Resources.
Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said what happens next will depend on how soon IDNR officials send the final report to the city on their recommendations.
The final report will include comments from the public open house meeting, given orally or in writing, Eisenhauer said.
City officials then will put the issue on an agenda for the Public Services Committee where it then would move to the full city council.
Eisenhauer said it could be July at the earliest before any decisions are made.
Written comments concerning the Strategic Planning Study and study recommendations on the Vermilion River and Ellsworth Park dams can be e-mailed to the Department of Natural Resources, Office of Water Resources at firstname.lastname@example.org until May 15.