Free flow

Jennifer Bailey|Commercial-NewsHeavy equipment is being used to remove the dams on the Vermilion River not far from the Public Safety Building. The project will continue through December.

DANVILLE – It was 15 years ago Allyn Barnett’s 24-year-old daughter, Sandi, died in the last drowning to occur in the city involving the Vermilion River dams.

Removal of the Danville Dam behind the Public Safety Building has started and will continue through December. The removal of the Ellsworth Park Dam has yet to be scheduled.

The dams have continued to divide people on whether they should be removed.

Barnett, of Woodridge, says, “It is better late than never. I am relieved to know that no one else will suffer the pain that we have gone through due to this low head dam. The dam had long since outlived any usefulness and only served as a threat. We are happy to hear that reason has prevailed.”

Other community members, however, don’t want to see the river level fall and the scenic river area and Ellsworth Park affected.

“I’m really sad to see it go,” said Susan Willaman, who frequents Ellsworth Park and the river area. “I know there have been drownings there and I certainly feel bad about that.”

But Willaman said the removal of the dams will affect a lot of people who like to fish along there.

“It will drop the water immensely,” she said. “We’ll have a small trickle when it’s taken out.”

She said she likes to hear the noise of the dams.

“It’s so peaceful,” she said “This is a city park. I think it’s an outlet for them.”

She said the removal of the dams will have a social impact along the river and at Ellsworth Park.

“Everybody has their own Zen and that’s mine,” Willaman said. “It’s become kind of my therapy.”

Willaman works downtown and regularly visits Ellsworth Park on her lunch breaks. She also has had a lot of fun during the years along the river and by the dams with her children. She said the area is very relaxing.

“I absolutely love Ellsworth (Park),” she said.

She said she collects shells, and she’s made lots of friends there.

“It’s family-oriented,” she said.

When going down to the dam recently, she said Halverson Construction found a third little dam that the Illinois Department of Natural Resources didn’t know was there.

Those who’ve been against removal of the dams have suggested they could have been modified. Construction on the Danville dam removal project started July 16.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the scope of the project is to remove the concrete low water dam behind the Danville Public Safety Building along the Vermilion River, remove the concrete piers just upstream of the dam and place riprap for bank stabilization in the area of the dam.

Weather permitting, construction should be finished by the end of this year, according to Lindell Loy, construction manager with the IDNR's Office of Water Resources.

The date to begin the Ellsworth Dam removal has not been set yet, according to Loy.

Halverson Construction Co. of Springfield is completing the Danville dam removal at a cost of $1.4 million.

Long talked-about project

City discussions about possibly removing the dams started 10 years ago.

The state just released funds earlier this year for the removals. The removal projects had been among state projects under review after Gov. Bruce Rauner took office. He ordered a review of all state contracts or grants awarded after Nov. 1, 2014.

The city had received extension paperwork regarding the projects. In Feb. 2017, the city council amended an intergovernmental agreement with the IDNR for the dam removals and restoration project to extend the termination date of the original agreement. IDNR’s funding obligation will terminate upon completion of the project or June 30, 2020, whichever comes first.

Due to the hydraulic conditions of the Danville and Ellsworth Park dams, and that no riverbed protection was placed below the dam upon construction, a submerged hydraulic roller occurs. During time, the turbulent forces generated by a hydraulic roller have eroded a scour hole in the original bed material at the base of the dam. The tailwater submerges the hydraulic jump, creating the submerged hydraulic roller. These rollers typically pull in and hold objects, including people, which often leads to emergency rescues or drownings, according to the IDNR.

The most recent drowning at the dams, of several over the years, was canoeist Sandi Barnett in July 2003.

Danville City Council members in January 2014 voted 13-1 to have IDNR remove the Ellsworth Park Dam and 12-2 to remove the Danville Dam behind the Public Safety Building.

Aldermen took into account city liability of a known hazard, where drownings have occurred, and costs to remove the safety hazards in agreeing to go forward with the IDNR recommendations on the removals.

The IDNR allocated $2 million-plus funding for the removal of the two dams. The General Assembly appropriated funds for the Danville dam removals through bond sales that are part of the Jobs Now program.

IDNR representatives have said the dams are being removed because of there have been fatalities there and the dams also are in deteriorating condition with undercutting and erosion.

The removal of the dams, and others in the state, was identified by Gov. Pat Quinn in 2012 as part of his dam removal initiative. The General Assembly appropriated funds for the Danville dam removals through bond sales that were part of the Jobs Now program.

A dams study included sediment collection and testing, water surface modeling and environmental monitoring.

Sand and gravel bars will be exposed during low flows, but IDNR officials in the past stated that the river won’t become a mud flat or go dry. Canoes will still be able to go along the river, they’ve said.

IDNR officials also have said fishing opportunities will remain and the Ellsworth Park boat ramp will be affected, but not be unusable.