Pelath to lead Kankakee River Basin Commission

Scott Pelath
Scott Pelath

PORTAGE — Scott Pelath, with two decades serving in the Indiana House of Representatives, will be the executive director to the Kankakee River Basin Commission beginning in January.

Jody Melton, who has held the position for 37 years, will retire at the end of the year.

“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,” Chris Knochel, the commission’s chairman and Newton County surveyor, said Monday.

The commission is charged with the planning and coordination of water resources through flood control and drainage management and initiatives in recreational and environmental areas in the eight counties of Northwest Indiana which lie in the watershed.

During his tenure downstate, Pelath led in fiscal and legislative initiatives and served five years as minority leader in the House, often focusing on natural resources. He sponsored the Great Lakes Compact, which is now law in every Great Lakes state and Canadian province. He authored the current structure of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.

“I am elated by the opportunity to forge consensus for the future of the Kankakee River Basin. Throughout my years of public service, I always held a particular passion for natural resources and the careful stewardship of our waters,” Pelath said. “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.”

Knochel said the commission looked for someone with public policy experience, a history of working with diverse stakeholders and proven communication leadership.

“The KRBC serves eight different counties, their local governments and stakeholders ranging from farmers, businesses, homeowners and conservations. 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,” Knochel said. “We could not be more optimistic about the future.”

Yellow River Preliminary Engineering Report

Illinois, Indiana agree on river plan Robert Themer | | 815-937-3369 Jul 20, 2018

Kankakee County Board Chairman Andy Wheeler, left, talks with Jimmy Carter, president of the Kankakee River Conservancy District, at a Kankakee River Basin Commission meeting July 11 in Indiana.
The Daily Journal/Robert Themer/

Members of the eight-county Kankakee River Basin Commission of Indiana recently agreed to fund a $250,000 study for flood control purposes on the Kankakee River that also will seek $25,000 each from Kankakee and Iroquois counties in Illinois.

The Indiana counties would pay $200,000 of the cost.

After the meeting, Kankakee County Board Chairman Andy Wheeler made a verbal commitment to the plan.

“They approved it. Now it’s our turn to join the team,” he told the Daily Journal. “The county is much better off financially. We’re still in a hole financially, but we’ll be better off next year. If we have money to spend $26,000 for an X-ray machine for the courthouse (for security purposes), I think we can get $25,000 for this. It is for the whole county.”

The study would extend to Aroma Park, where the Iroquois River joins the Kankakee after flowing through Iroquois County and Newton County, Ind. The study also would take in the Singleton Ditch, a major drainage system for northeast Kankakee County and much of Lake County, Ind., which enters the Kankakee River east of Momence, said Jody Melton, executive director of the KRBC.

Through the eight counties of Indiana, it would extend nearly to South Bend, as did the former Grand Kankakee Marsh that decades of dredging drained beginning in the late 1800s.

Talks with Indiana officials “started about 4 1/2 months ago,” Wheeler said. Indiana officials came earlier to a meeting he set up where he works in Momence “where we reached cohesion,” he said. “Indianapolis and Springfield need to know we’re unified.”

Iroquois County Board Chairman John Schure, of Buckley, also was at the meeting, along with state Rep. Tom Bennett, of Gibson City.

“It’s something that needs to come together. It’s all linked together,” Schure said. “We obviously have to work together for a solution.”

He said that, like Wheeler, “I will have to go to the county board” for funding, adding: “I think they will be proactive.”

Bennett had scheduled a meeting of Iroquois River area officials for the next day at Forrest, Ill. “The watersheds are huge,” he said. “We’ve got to think broadly. We’ve got to think of ways to work with mother nature.”

Bennett noted that Watseka has been hit by major floods three of the last four years.

“It’s been great to have Gov. Rauner know where Watseka is, but we have to get government funding,” he said.

Bennett said he has been talking with Illinois officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency officials about funding. “Further on down the road we may have pre-disaster mitigation funding and FEMA told us interstate coordination is right on the top of their list for funding.”

He got a laugh by telling the commission that “my cohorts in Indiana told me there is a fireworks tax that will go to flood abatement” and that he responded that “most of their fireworks are bought by Illinois people.”

In an interview after the meeting, Melton said: “What I see that is just fantastic is that Indiana and Illinois are going to work together on a common problem.”

When Melton joined the KRBC staff in 1981, hostility reigned between the two states. Indiana had a “clearing and snagging” plan to remove trees and log snags from the banks and the river itself. Illinois filed a federal lawsuit on the grounds that the proposal would increase flooding and the sand load on the river here — and that the river was subject to federal control as a historically navigable river due to historic uses. Illinois prevailed, the river was ruled navigable and projects were subject to approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Now we’re actually doing a work plan that is going to do good for both of us,” Melton said.

The plan is to hire Christopher B. Burke Engineering, a multi-state firm which specializes in planning and design of infrastructure projects for storm-water and flood control, among many other activities.

The firm has done many projects in northeast Illinois and has an excellent reputation, said Paul Osman, floodplain management program director with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

A version of this story appeared in the Friday digital edition of the Daily Journal.

News Release: July 18th, 2019

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Meeting Agenda: June 13th, 2019

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