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Lawmakers Evaluate Erosion of Kankakee

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, January 24, 2020

The man-made problems contributing to perennial flooding along the Kankakee River have been more than 100 years in the making, so no one realistically expects them to be resolved any time soon.

However, state-mandated remedies should be in place long before another century passes.

"I'd be happy if they really helped us in the next 10 years," said Bill Bohling, who with his father-in-law farms a total of 4,000 acres in and around LaCrosse. "It took 100 years to create this problem. If we could fix it in 10 or 20 years, I think that would be acceptable."

That would also fit neatly into the 40-year plan Scott Pelath, executive director of the newly formed Kankakee River Basin and Yellow River Basin Development Commission, discussed during a public information meeting held last Thursday in LaCrosse.

"It takes a long—term and a dedicated plan to begin to correct (the issues) and we now have that," Pelath said. "It takes a long-term (monetary) investment, too. We're moving purposefully to fulfilling that plan, but this situation didn't happen in a day, and it won't be solved in a day. We can do better than 100 years on the fixing part, but it takes a long-term commitment and the Legislature agreed."

Last spring, Indiana lawmakers appropriated $2.3 million to the commission to study and test possible solutions to known factors contributing to flooding, such as bank erosion and logjams, and to begin work on some of them.

In subsequent years, the commission will use money coming from a regional assessment collected by the eight counties in the 1.3-million-acre basin—Jasper, Lake, LaPorte, Marshall, Newton, Porter, Starke and St. Joseph. The commission expects to generate about $3 million a year from the property taxes.

Farmland will be assessed no more than $1 per acre, residential property will be capped at $7, commercial properties will be limited to $50 and utility and industrial entities would pay a maximum of $360. It's up to each county to determine how much to collect from each landowner, up to 100 percent, Pelath said.

Bohling is relieved that something tangible is finally being done to address the root cause of the flooding, as opposed to temporary stop-gap measures implemented in the past.

The commission plans to spend $1.6 million to logjam management.

"I'm coming out of this meeting with hope that the commission will continue to do the things they're currently planning for," Bohling said. "I like many of the ideas that they've proposed. I'm just not sure that the funding is going to be enough to do everything that they're talking about doing.

"But it is a promising start, and it sounds good so far."

Anything would after what Bohling and his fellow landowners and basin neighborhoods endured during the catastrophic, record-setting flood of February 2018.

Water flowed over the river's banks for nine days, washing away top soil, closing major and secondary roads and damaging or destroying numerous structures. Some fields were under as much as 10 feet of water. High ground, where houses, barns and other facilities were located, became islands.

"We personally experienced some major flooding in 2018," Bohling said. "How much of our land was flooded? Maybe 600 acres. It happened early enough in February that it didn't impact our planting window, but it impacted how we had to treat the land before planting because we had residue piled up in different places where the water sat in some areas.

"Luckily for us, we didn't have any buildings that were affected, but our neighbors definitely did. They had structural damage or irrigation-electrical issues due to the flood water, things such as that. We couldn't use Highway 8 for eight-nine months and we ship a lot of grain down that road, so we had to reroute."

The 2018 flood was "unambiguously" the catalyst for setting an unprecedented bold, new course for the Kankakee and Yellow rivers, Pelath said.

A year ago, Pelath was put in charge of the old 24-member Kankakee River Basin Commission, which was dissolved and replaced by the much leaner, nine-member body he now heads to protect and advance economic development in one of the world's most productive agricultural centers.

"This commission has additional powers and authority and responsibilities," Pelath said. "Those began on July 1 and that was the day the new laws took effect."

One of the commission's first moves was to create an exclusive 75-foot easement on each side of the rivers, allowing for access and for work to be done. Local governments will have to coordinate their activity on the rivers with the commission, but will retain jurisdiction over the easement in times of emergency.

Before settlers arrived, the Kankakee River had more than 200 miles of meandering shoreline through one of the natural wonders of the world, the Grand Kankakee Marsh, which also became known as the Everglades of the North.

Farmers literally began draining the swamp in the 1800s to expose fertile land, and a dredging operation to speed up the process was completed in 1917. However, deepening and straightening out the river to bypass the meanders turned it into what amounts to an 80-mile ditch while significantly increasing the velocity of water.

Faster water causes more erosion, which leads to trees falling into the water and floating downstream, and sand and sediment collecting at choke points. The debris creates barriers, some of which Pelath showed to be growing vegetation, that push the flow from the middle of the river to the banks, and exacerbate erosion and flooding.

Many of the flooding problems originate in the Yellow River, which transports a problematic amount of sand to the Kankakee River on a daily basis. There is also more water in the system because of a demonstrable incr-

ease in rainfall in recent years, and projections are showing a 40-percent increase by 2050.

"Getting in front of the logjam-management problem is important and that's why we're working on that immediately," Pelath said. "You can't have water artificially held back when you have a flood emergency."

The commission is also looking to restoring and modifying river banks and removing abandoned structures, including at least one bridge and a train trestle, that catch objects and divert the flow.

One test project has already proven to move the current away from the banks and back to the middle of the river, where it acts as a natural dredge.

What the commission intends to do would represent the first major work done on the river since it was dredged by steam-powered machinery, which is pretty incredible since it's been working on restoring itself for more than a century.

"It kind of still wants to be a marsh," Pelath said. "I will not stand here and say this will prevent the next flood. There will be one. But maybe we can make it a moderate flood event next time."

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