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.
2019 Indiana General Assembly
- Dan Carden firstname.lastname@example.org, 317-637-9078
- Jan 15, 2019
INDIANAPOLIS — The eight-county commission tasked with minimizing the impact of Kankakee River flooding in Northwest Indiana may be slimmed down in the hope of improving its effectiveness.
House Bill 1270, which won unanimous committee approval Tuesday, would shrink the current, 24-member Kankakee River Basin Commission to a 9-member panel, with each member required to have experience in construction, project management, flood control or drainage.
One member would be appointed by the county commissioners in each of the eight counties whose water drains into the Kankakee River, including Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. The ninth member would be appointed by the governor.
State Rep. Doug Gutwein, R-Francesville, the sponsor of the proposal, said his goal is to streamline the commission because right now “there’s just too many people on that commission,” he said. “They don’t get anything done.”
The commission’s shortcomings were made clear last February when historic flooding along the Kankakee River washed out roads, a bridge and caused millions of dollars in damage to public and private property.
A study is underway to identify potential remedies. Gutwein said he wants the new commission in place by July 1 and prepared to act on those recommendations once they’re finalized later this year.
“We’ll never stop the flooding, but we can control it better,” Gutwein said. “We can flood the right spots and so forth, but that’s not what’s happening — it’s going everywhere now.”
Gutwein’s proposal does not address how the revamped commission would pay for flood control improvements.
He said that likely will require a future assessment be imposed on properties served by the commission, similar to the extra property tax charge paid by land owners living near the once flood-prone Little Calumet River in Lake County.
Former state Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, who now serves as the commission’s executive director, said funding will be key to determining whether the new commission is any more effective than the current one.
“If we go from 24 people down to nine people and there’s no resources to do the major work that needs to be done, then it’s just a smaller group of people having coffee,” Pelath said.
State Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, who previously represented Porter County on the commission and served as its chairman for two years, said changing the commission will help bring in more federal, state and local dollars for flood mitigation efforts.
“I strongly support the idea of reducing the commission members down to one per county,” Aylesworth said. “It’s a process that needs to happen.”
Former Indiana Democratic State Representative Scott Pelath has been selected to serve as the new executive director of the Kankakee River Basin Commission (KRBC). Pelath replaces longtime director Jody Melton, who is retiring after nearly forty years.
Pelath joins the KRBC after twenty years of representing portions of La Porte and Porter County in the Indiana House. During that time, KRBC reports he frequently focused on natural resource issues in positions of senior legislative and fiscal leadership, including five years as minority leader. Among his numerous legislative accomplishments was sponsorship of the Great Lakes Water Use Compact, which is now law in every Great Lakes state and Canadian province, and authorship of the current structure of the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission.
“I am elated by the opportunity to forge consensus for the future of the Kankakee River Basin,” said Pelath. “Throughout my years of public service, I always held a particular passion for natural resources and the careful stewardship of our waters.
“Our future economic prosperity, our food supply, and our health and quality of life depend on careful water resource planning and a shared sense of purpose. This unique challenge of improving our Northern Indiana region is one I find deeply invigorating, and I cannot thank the KRBC enough for their confidence.”
The KRBC coordinates the water resources and water-related land resources of the basin through flood control projects, drainage maintenance, and initiatives to enhance the environment for both conservation and recreational development. Through its work, the commission seeks to promote and sustain surface and ground water for agricultural, residential, recreational, and commercial needs. The KRBC’s long-term goals directly pertain to overall water quality, fishery restoration, wetlands and aquatic habitats, and the future availability of the region’s water supply.
KRBC Chairman and Newton County Surveyor Chris Knochel said the commission looked for a new director with a history of working with diverse stakeholders, significant public policy experience, and proven communication leadership.
“As impossible as it is to replace Jody Melton’s decades of outstanding service, we believe Scott’s own unique skill sets will serve our goals well,” said Knochel.
“The KRBC serves eight different counties, their local governments, and stakeholders ranging from farmers, businesses, homeowners, and conservationists. Just about every citizen has an interest in improving our water, and it takes someone like Scott to be able to hear everyone while keeping an eye on the greater good. We could not be more optimistic about the future.”
The Kankakee River Basin Commission, which was created in 1977, serves the water resource planning needs of eight northwest Indiana counties: Jasper, Lake, LaPorte, Marshall, Newton, Porter, Starke, and St. Joseph. Its twenty-four members includes a representative of each county’s commissioners, the eight county surveyors, and a supervisor from each of the basin’s soil and water districts. The Kankakee Basin comprises 1.9 million acres, of which almost 1.6 million acres has been used as cropland.
Introduced Session:2019 Regular Session
Bill Summary: Kankakee River basin and Yellow River basin development. Abolishes the Kankakee River basin commission and repeals its statute. Establishes the Kankakee River basin and Yellow River basin development commission (commission) as a public body corporate and politic. Authorizes the commission to participate in the flood control program operated by the Indiana finance authority. Requires certain state agencies to assist each other in simplifying the permitting process with respect to the flood control activities of the commission. Provides that there is imposed in each calendar year beginning after December 31, 2020, an annual special assessment against each taxable parcel of real property that is located within any part of the basin within an Indiana county. Requires the default special assessments to be paid to be paid to the commission. Specifies the amount of the default special assessment by parcel category and the commission’s permissible uses of the special assessments. Provides that a county fiscal body may adopt a resolution opting to implement one of the following methods of supporting the commission instead of collecting the default special assessments: (1) Paying direct support to the commission in lieu of the default special assessments. (2) Supplementing reduced special assessments with direct support payments. (3) Imposing special assessments that exceed the amount that could be raised through the default special assessments. Provides that direct support must equal at least 90% of the amount that could be raised through the default special assessments. Specifies the amounts that a county may retain in calendar years beginning after December 31, 2022, from special assessments imposed instead of the default special assessments. Establishes an advisory committee to the commission. Requires the commission to coordinate its flood control activities with other public agencies to ensure that undeveloped public land is used for providing flood storage to the greatest extent feasible before other lands are used. Authorizes an Indiana business preference if certain conditions are met. Establishes an Indiana employment goal with respect to contracts for public works awarded by the commission.
Bill Subjects: Not specified
Last Action: Public Law 282 (on 5/6/2019)
Official Document: http://iga.in.gov/legislative/2019/bills/house/1270/
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.