Bill remakes Kankakee River commission By TIM ZORN POST-TRIBUNE | APR 22, 2019 | 12:05 PM

Bill remakes Kankakee River commission
Former Minority leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, is now the executive director of the Kankakee River Basin Commission. (Darron Cummings / AP file)

Last year’s Kankakee River flood did more than damage farms and homes along the river.

That flood, the most severe in more than 30 years, also prompted Indiana legislators to draft legislation to re-make the government body tasked with overseeing Indiana’s stretch of the river.

House Bill 1270 passed its final legislative hurdle late last week, when the Indiana House concurred, 84-2, with the Senate’s changes to the bill. In January, that bill had passed the House on a 97-0 vote. It awaits Gov. Eric Holcomb’s signature.

For the first time since it was created more than 40 years ago, the Kankakee River commission will be able to raise its own funding from a tax – called an assessment – on landowners in the river basin’s eight Indiana counties.

That assessment, which is expected to raise nearly $3 million a year, will allow the commission to pay for projects and studies along the river, and to obtain federal grants.

Until now, the Kankakee commission has depended on the Indiana General Assembly to provide money every two years. It has never received more than $1 million for a two-year period and usually got less, Scott Pelath, the commission’s executive director, said.

The legislation also shrinks the commission’s size, from 24 members to nine, and gives it a new name – the Kankakee River Basin and Yellow River Basin Development Commission.

“It’s certainly a new day for the Kankakee River basin, which has had 100 years of accumulating problems,” Pelath said.

“This is an opportunity to solve decades’ worth of problems,” he added. “It will take time, but at least we’ll be on the path to solving problems.”

Pelath, a former state legislator from Michigan City, has been the Kankakee River Basin Commission’s executive director since January.

State Rep. Michael Aylesworth, R-Hebron, called HB 1270 “one of the most important bills to pass thelLegislature this year.”

Aylesworth served on the first Kankakee River Basin Commission in 1979, when he was a Porter County commissioner. This year, he was one of HB 1270’s co-authors. Four other Northwest Indiana legislators also are listed on the bill – State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster; and state Sens. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell; Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso; and Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago. State Rep. Doug Gutwein, R-Francesville, is the author.

Problems along the Kankakee River have been building for more than a century, Pelath said.

Until a project to dredge and straighten Indiana’s portion of the river began in the 19th century, the Kankakee meandered through the nation’s second-largest freshwater wetland, second only to the Florida Everglades.

“We didn’t learn how valuable our wetlands were until the Clean Water Act came along (in 1972),” Aylesworth said.[Most read] Labor and delivery units are closing at Chicago-area hospitals. Here’s why. »

Now, he added, “We need to preserve and protect our soil, and also protect our water.”

The dredging project’s completion in 1918 gave Indiana thousands of acres of fertile farmland, but it left the Kankakee prone to flooding.

Much of the flooding is due to sand drifting into the Kankakee from the Yellow River, Pelath said. The sand, which gives the Yellow River its name, is a remnant of an Ice Age series of floods about 19,000 years ago.

“As sediment builds up in the (Kankakee) River, the same water flow gets higher and higher,” Lake County Surveyor Bill Emerson said. “If we don’t do anything, we’ll get more flooding.”

Other problems that need to be addressed, Pelath and others have said, include stabilizing the river’s banks, which have been prone to collapsing during floods, and creating areas to store water before it reaches the river. Some areas also could be restored to their pre-dredging condition.[Most read] 11-year-old ‘Yummy’ Sandifer was on the run for killing a teenage girl. Then he was killed by his own gang in a Chicago story that shocked the nation 25 years ago. »

“It’s very complex, and it’s not quick,” Pelath said of the work along the river and its tributaries.

The Christopher B. Burke engineering firm and Bob Barr, an IUPUI research scientist, began working last year on a long-range plan to address the Kankakee River’s issues, and their final report is expected at the next – and probably final – Kankakee River Basin Commission meeting in June, Pelath said.

The new commission, to be called the Kankakee River Basin and Yellow River Basin Development Commission, will take office in July. The new name acknowledges the Yellow River’s importance to the overall Kankakee River basin, Pelath said.

The original commission has had 24 members – three from each of the river basin’s eight Indiana counties.

The new one will have nine members – one from each county, appointed by the county commissioners, and one from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Tim Zorn is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.