Dam's danger still weighs heavily on victim's father
DANVILLE — The dam on the Vermilion River is still a very emotional issue for Allyn Barnett.
This summer marks 10 years since his 24-year-old daughter Sandi Barnett died after her canoe capsized near the low-head dam on the Vermilion River, plunging her and three friends into the water. The girls clung to floating debris near the dam, but Barnett lost her grip and drown in the churning waters below the dam's face. One of the other girls made it to shore and ran for help, and rescuers eventually pulled the other two girls to safety.
Barnett's body was recovered downstream later that day by emergency personnel.
The four Champaign-Urbana girls, ages 24, 18, 17 and 16, rented two canoes in Kickapoo State Park and started a 7-mile trip down the Middlefork River that should have ended back in Kickapoo park, but the girls missed the stopping point, marked by a stop sign on the bank, and unknowingly floated 10 miles farther downstream into the Vermilion River and capsized at the dam just east of Memorial Bridge on South Gilbert Street in Danville.
"The city of Danville is lucky it wasn't more girls that day," Barnett said from his home in Woodridge, where his daughter grew up and graduated high school. She attended the University of Illinois, where she graduated in 1999 as a history major, and got a job as a human resource specialist at Flex-N-Gate in Urbana. The four girls knew each other from church.
Other drowning deaths had occurred at the low-head dam on the Vermilion River, but soon after the 2003 incident, the city of Danville, which owns the dam and another low-head dam on the North Fork River in Ellsworth Park, formed a commission to determine what to do about the dams, which no longer serve an industrial or municipal purpose.
That commission determined that removal was the best option, but the city had no funds to do that, and before taking such action, certain state and federal agencies would have to be notified and studies performed to determine potential impacts, including any effects on river habitat.
Ten years later, the dam remains intact, but signs and buoys have been placed upstream warning people of the danger ahead, and the city, in conjunction with the state, is poised to move forward with their preferred choice and the least costly option: removal of the dam. Since 2003, Gov. Pat Quinn has launched an initiative to address the danger of low-head dams across the state, appropriating money to either remove them or alter them to protect the public.
Low-head dams are known as drowning machines, because, as the water drops over the dam, there's a backwash, or hydraulic roller, that recirculates back toward the face of the dam. It's difficult for a person to escape the rolling motion, which can be strong enough to pull in boats that approach the dam from the downstream side. Deaths have occurred at low-head dams across Illinois and the United States.
Karl Visser, a civil engineer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said low-head dams are not an issue just in Illinois, but in other states as well, like Pennsylvania. He said full removal is the ideal option, and he "certainly supports Danville (city administration's) efforts to remove the dam and provide a free-flowing stream."
Visser, formerly of Champaign, now lives in Texas and also knows personally the dangers of low-head dams. His daughter, Sarah Visser, who was 16 at the time, was one of the girls rescued the day that Ms. Barnett drowned in the Vermilion River.
Visser said he realizes that projects, like the proposed removal of the dam, grind slowly, but he's pleased the city and state have continued their efforts.
Going to work-related conferences, Visser said, he sees the issues with these dams coming up a lot.
"Safety is what always brings it up, and then, how do you address (the safety issue)," he said. "The main thing is obviously it would be ideal to take care of this before someone else dies again."
Barnett said removal of the dam is long overdue.
"As far as I can see, there is no valid reason for the dam to be there any longer," he said. "All they do is provide a potential danger. A very real danger."
And, Visser said, removal would also open up the river for additional recreation and tourism like canoeing and kayaking.
"And I think that's a good thing," Visser said.
But full, or even partial removal of the dam on the Vermilion River, according to the state's report, would eliminate the use of motorized boats on the river above the dam, because the depth of the river would be lowered without the dam's pooling effect upstream.
That is not acceptable to some local fishermen who often fish the Vermilion River in their motorized boats. Local fishermen also fear the spread of Asian carp, a non-native fish, that's in the Wabash River, if the dam, which serves as a barrier, were removed.
So they have formed the Save the Dam committee and have been holding informational meetings leading up to the city's public hearing at 6 p.m. April 30 at the municipal building, 17 W. Main St., Danville. About 70 people attended the first meeting held by the Save the Dam committee, which is hosting a meeting at 6 p.m. April 22 at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 310 Bryan Ave., Danville.
Barnett said he understands that fishermen want a place for fish to pool, but he doesn't believe that's worth a life.
"I don't see how anybody's fishing is worth another human's life," he said. "I just don't see that."
Local fishermen are concerned that removing the dam and eliminating the pool upstream could affect the fish habitat as well as the ability to fish the river. Local fishermen would rather other alternatives be pursued.
Local outdoorsman Sam Van Camp is involved in the effort to save the dam. He said pulling out the dam on the Vermilion River will affect the river level, and he questions whether it will also affect the Middle Fork River, a national scenic river. He said the concern is that it could harm fish and change the whole Vermilion River system.
Van Camp said he prefers that the dam on the Vermilion River not be touched at all, but he would be OK with one of the options to alter the dam to make it more safe. Van Camp questions the possible decision by a city that's poor and a state that can't pay its bills to tear out these dams. In reference to the safety issue, Van Camp questions how many people have really drowned at the dams. He said whether there's a dam or not, there will be people who drown in the river.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense to me," he said.
Danville Public Safety Director Larry Thomason said he believes the dams are drowning machines, because of the hydraulic roll, but also debris gets caught in that roll, too, creating more of a hazard unless a person can grab hold of debris upstream of the dam and keep from going over it.
"Because once you're over that dam and the roll it creates, recovery is very, very difficult," he said. "I have seen several rescues, and one life — just one is too many when we have a means of correcting a dangerous situation."
His two major concerns, he said, are protecting the public and protecting emergency personnel. He said not only are there recreational activities on the water, like boating, canoeing and kayaking, that put people in the vicinity of the dams, but the dams are an attraction, especially to people who fish the banks around the dams. The signs and buoys help, he said, but when people are on a recreational outing, they get distracted by looking at the scenery or doing other things and miss signs or buoys. And, Thomason said, low-head dams don't always look dangerous. Throughout the summers, he said, Danville police often get calls to the dam at Ellsworth for kids in the water around the dam, trying to swim.
"They are only thinking of one thing, getting in the water to cool off. They have no knowledge of the currents underneath, and the things that could snag them. There's always a concern someone could fall in, particularly fishing close to a dam," said Thomason, who has seen bank fishermen walk out onto the dam on the Vermilion River.
And if there is an accident, that puts the first responders at risk, said Thomason, who explained that it's not an easy rescue to pull a person out of a turbulent water flow with throw ropes. And other emergency personnel might be working to get a boat onto the river, Thomason said, but that takes time and puts even more emergency personnel in danger.
"I can't imagine it not occurring again," Thomason of the potential for another incident at either dam. "One is too many."