A close call at the Batavia dam helped trigger plans for big changes there.
In August, a couple on a pontoon boat lost power, floated down the Fox River, and got stuck on top of the dam, City Administrator Laura Newman said. A woman on the boat fell into the water and got pulled into the churning undertow on the dam’s downstream side before rescuers were able to pull her out.
“It became a life-or-death situation,” Newman said. “The sooner that dam comes out, the better.”
Dozens of boaters, anglers, children and would-be rescuers have drowned in recent decades at similar “low head” dams or weirs, which let water spill over the top and create a dangerous trap. Now, after years of such tragedies, authorities are acting to remove the hazards and promising benefits for the environment and fishing as well.
During the next three years, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources plans to remove dams in Batavia, Carpentersville, North Aurora and Montgomery on the Fox River; the Touhy Avenue Dam near Park Ridge and Dam No. 4 near Rosemont on the Des Plaines River; and dams at the Chick Evans Golf Course in Morton Grove and the Tam O’Shanter Golf Course in Niles on the North Branch of the Chicago River. Other projects are planned elsewhere in Illinois.
The Challenge Dam in Batavia was built well over a century ago to provide power, first for a flour mill, then for a windmill factory. Like many dams, it is a focal point of its city’s downtown.
Residents voted against removing the dam in an advisory referendum in 2003. But after years of debating what to do, in response to the dangers posed by the crumbling structure, the city and the Batavia Park District recently agreed to do engineering work in anticipation of removing the dam, possibly as soon as 2022.
Next to the dam lies Depot Pond, the site of a museum and a park where people rent paddle boats and kayaks and go ice skating in the winter. Residents want to make sure any dam removal saves the pond, perhaps by building a berm across its opening to the river and installing pumps to keep it filled.
Batavia resident Jason Grimes occasionally takes his two young boys for walks along the river, and was concerned to see the boat hung up on the dam after the incident. When the river is low, he said, fishermen often walk along its exposed top and fish off it. When the water is high, he said, the backwash behind the dam can be dangerous.
“The pond is a great asset,” he said. “I’m confident they can maintain it, so I don’t have a problem taking out the dam. If anybody were to fall in, those are dangerous spots.”
Many dams, like Batavia’s, were built around a century ago to power mills. But environmentalists have been urging for decades to remove the structures, saying they’ve become obsolete safety hazards that build up silt and algae, and keep fish from migrating.
State naturalists say studies show that removing dams generally increases the number and types of fish and improves water quality, while maintaining similar water levels and not affecting flooding. In light of the problems they pose, about 1,700 dams have been removed nationwide in about the past century.
In 2012, then-Gov. Pat Quinn launched a program to remove or modify 16 low-head dams throughout the state. Such removals can cost millions of dollars, and funding for the work dried up during budget impasses between Democrats and then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. This year, the state budget includes $20 million to pay for removals around the state, and more local governments are taking steps to get rid of their dams.
In Will County, forest preserve commissioners Thursday approved contracts to remove a dam on the DuPage River where a young couple drowned last year. The dam, located in Hammel Woods Forest Preserve in Shorewood, was constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The project involves removal of the 4-foot-high dam and an adjoining concrete structure, placing rocks and boulders in the river stream, stabilizing the bank and building a new canoe and kayak launch area.
The total cost is estimated at about $455,000. The Lower DuPage River Watershed Coalition, a group of local governments aiming to improve water quality in the area, plans to fund most of the cost from fees paid by Naperville in 2019 when it got a new wastewater discharge permit.
If permits are obtained this year, officials hope to get the work done before the end of the year. If the permits are not secured in time, the work would probably take place next year.
Once the 110-foot-long dam is removed, natural river rocks will be added near the banks to create “riffles” and help oxygenate the water. Native plantings will be added to the riverbanks next spring. A new canoe and kayak launch will be built downstream of the existing launch, which will be removed.
Andrew Hawkins, director of planning and development for the Forest Preserve District of Will County, said the project will help improve water quality and aquatic life along the river, and will make the river safer for paddlers who will no longer have to get out to portage around a dam. Water levels are predicted to be 2 to 4 feet deep.
While there have been objections in the past to the dam’s removal, Hawkins said that seems to be changing.
“Now people seem to recognize the environmental health and safety benefits of removing the dam,” he said.
Nevertheless, many people like the dams, and are opposed to taking them out. One dam in particular — the Graue Mill Dam on Salt Creek in Oak Brook — is the focus of a fight. On Tuesday, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County voted for a plan to remove the dam, based in part on a study that found the dam created some of the poorest habitat on the creek.
Former Oak Brook Village President Karen Bushy started an online petition to save the dam, which has gathered 14,000 signatures.
Bushy argued that the dam has more than 150 years of history, and enabled the grist mill that brought new settlers, and still operates as part of a museum. The dam keeps the mill water wheel turning and provides deep-water habitat for fish, birds and other animals, she said.
“There is simply NO good and sensible reason to remove the dam,” Bushy wrote on the petition site. “Future generations of children deserve to see what the beginnings of our area looked like!”
State Rep. Deane Mazzochi, a Republican from Elmhurst, said the community wants to keep the dam. She recently filed a bill to prevent destruction of the mill and dam without approval by an oversight board.
Farther south, residents of a city with a dam notorious for drownings appear ready to make a change. In Wilmington, a city of about 6,000 near Joliet, at least 22 people have died since 1982, according to a lawsuit filed over some of the latest deaths.
In 2016, 13-year-old Abigail Arroyo died when she tried to save her 12-year-old brother, Eder, who went into the river to try to touch the waterfall. The following year, Elizabeth Larson, 36, died after she and a 6-year-old girl went over the dam in a rented inflatable raft. Larson helped rescuers pull the girl to safety, but couldn’t save herself, attorney Katherine Cardenas said.
In the past, people resisted calls to remove the dam. Some felt that the victims should have known better than to go near the dam, especially with many large warning signs, though boaters may not have seen them.
Now, the city is conducting a public survey through the end of October, and so far, the majority of people want to let the state take possession, with plans to remove the structure, City Administrator Joie Ziller said. The City Council is expected to consider the matter Wednesday.
Some residents in places with dams would prefer to build steps down the backside of the dam to eliminate the backwash, and add a fish ladder and a white-water bypass for kayakers, as was done in Yorkville. But that generally would cost millions of dollars that small towns do not have.
In 2018, Wilmington created an exclusionary zone that prohibits people from fishing or going in the water near the dam, under threat of being ticketed. That has made fishing near the dam largely a moot point, frustrating many who used to go there.
The river already runs dry in spots, so locals hope there will be enough water and dredging to maintain fishing and boating.
“Citizens take a lot of pride in having the dam here,” said Eric Fisher, publisher of the Wilmington Free Press Advocate newspaper. “But we’re talking about lives. It is time to make a decision and move on.”
Alicia Fabbre is a freelance reporter. Pioneer Press reporter Chuck Fieldman contributed.
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