By TIM ZORNPOST-TRIBUNE |JUN 13, 2019 | 4:20 PM
As the Kankakee River Basin Commission conducted its last meeting Thursday, it heard a report recommending a 40-year plan for controlling and adapting to the river’s fluctuating levels.
Earlier this year, the Indiana General Assembly formed the Kankakee River Basin and Yellow River Basin Development Commission to take the place of the KRBC, which was established by a 1977 law.
The new commission will have nine members instead of the KRBC’s 24, but it will cover the same eight Indiana counties drained by the Kankakee and Yellow rivers.
Unlike the KRBC, the new body will have a dedicated funding source – an assessment on each acre of farm land and other property in the drainage basin — to help pay for its projects.
“We have a new day for the Kankakee River basin,” KRBC Executive Director Scott Pelath said. “We have new things we could dream about doing.”[Most read] Chicago Teachers Union group’s trip to Venezuela, praise of socialist leader slammed as ‘propaganda tour’ »
Pelath, who will also be executive director of the new commission, takes office after July 1.
State Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, who had attended the KRBC’s first meeting, also worked on legislation creating the new body.
“I look forward to the new commission and partnering with nature as we move ahead,” he said.
The new commission will work from the report compiled by Christopher B. Burke Engineering LLC and Robert C. Barr, of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Although much of Indiana’s 90-mile stretch of the Kankakee was dredged and straightened in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Barr said it’s still a river and acts like a river.[Most read] ‘That could be my son’: An anxious vigil at scene of fatal shooting in Chicago Lawn »
“It’s not a ditch,” he said. “It can’t be managed like a ditch.”
Dredging the river destroyed one of the nation’s largest wetland areas but also created rich land for farming.
Siavash Beik, vice president and principal engineer for Christopher B. Burke, said adaptation should a keyword for dealing with the Kankakee and Yellow rivers.
He said that means recognizing that some flooding will occur as the amount and intensity of rainfall continues to increase, and taking steps to reduce the damage from floods.
“Frequent flooding is the result of more rain,” Beik said, “not just more sediment.”[Most read] Severe thunderstorm watch issued as system threatens hail, strong winds and heavy downpours that may cause flooding »
He said the report calls for a 40-year series of “common-sense and feasible” actions without adverse impacts on people and properties downstream.
“We cannot solve our problems at the expense of Illinois,” he said.
Recommendations include “bio-engineering” along the Yellow River’s banks to reduce sand flowing into the Kankakee; moving some Kankakee River berms farther back to “give the river some room;” keeping and maintaining 8.6 miles of berms; removing large trees on the downstream Yellow River; building some water-retention and –detention areas away from the Kankakee; and removing or replacing bridges that restrict the water’s flow.
Carrying out all the strategies in the report over 40 years would cost about $133 million in current dollars, without accounting for future inflation and other cost increases.
The new Kankakee and Yellow rivers’ commission expects to receive nearly $3 million a year initially from property assessments, and it also will be able to seek federal grants.[Most read] In search of the man behind the ‘Guy with thick Chicago accent helps coyote pup’ video. Plus, the fate of the coyote. »
Few of the more than 70 people at the KRBC meeting questioned Barr and Beik. But KRBC member Lee Nagai, a representative of the Starke County Soil and Water Conservation District, challenged some of the report’s recommendations.
“They continue to say that the solution to flooding is to allow more flooding,” he said after the meeting, noting the recommendations to breach river berms in some areas.
He also contended that the report should have recommended some dredging work and more tree removal along the river.
Jim Sweeney, president of the Izaak Walton League’s Porter County chapter, said he was “really, really encouraged” by the report.
“It includes some elements they’ve never talked about before, like setback levees,” he said. “It seems like they’re starting to get serious about it.”[Most read] Real Talk: Why Matt Nagy’s new approach to the preseason has its perks — and its challenges »
Several Illinois residents attended the meeting to hear the report, which included recommendations for their state’s side of the river, which was not dredged.
However, the Kankakee in Illinois doesn’t have a body like the KRBC or the new Kankakee commission, to plan and coordinate work on the river.
“This is a really great day,” Illinois State Rep. Thomas M. Bennett said. “Now we have to figure out how to make it happen.”
Tim Zorn is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.