DANVILLE — On Tuesday, Danville city officials and aldermen will wade back into the emotionally charged issue of what to do with two city-owned lowhead dams, one on the Vermilion River and the other on the North Fork of the Vermilion.
Both dams have been the site of drownings in the last 20 years.
City administration and state officials support removing the dams — which no longer have any industrial purpose — for safety and other reasons.
But some local fishermen do not support full removal, claiming that it would be detrimental to fish habitat and lower the average river levels making it difficult for fishermen to access the rivers from the city-owned boat ramp at Ellsworth Park.
Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said "doing nothing" is not an option.
He said city administration officials want to make that clear. He said there's been a misconception that one option is to do nothing with the dams.
"That is not an option," said Eisenhauer, adding that the aging dams are deteriorating, which forces the city into doing something with them. He said the state will demand that improvements be made to the dams if the city decides to leave them in place. The city has the option of not removing them, Eisenhauer said, but in that case, it will be at the cost of the taxpayers to stabilize them.
The state, which launched and funded an initiative several years ago to remove lowhead dams throughout the state, has the funding in place to address Danville's dams.
Chris McCloud, spokesman with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the state's dam removal initiative is funded by state capital dollars.
But the state is restricting that funding to partial or full removal of the dams, according to Eisenhauer. And McCloud confirmed that his department will provide funds for removal.
In its final report to the city on the dams, Natural Resources outlined multiple options for both dams, including removing the dams or altering them, but has made it clear that its recommendation is removal of both. According to the report, removal is the least costly of all the options.
So, the final decision rests with the Danville City Council, but, Eisenhauer said, the state will only fund full or partial removal of the dams.
"Any other options — stair stepping or any of that — they will put no funding toward those," he said.
Eisenhauer said his recommendation to the city council's public works committee Tuesday night will be full removal of the dam on the North Fork in Ellsworth Park and partial removal of the Vermilion River dam, which is just east of Memorial Bridge on South Gilbert Street in Danville.
Partial removal on the Vermilion River is being called partial only because abutments at the end of the lowhead dam would be left in place to help support the river bank.
The public works committee meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the city council chambers on the lower level of the Robert E. Jones Municipal Building, 17 W. Main St., Danville. The committee will vote on the recommendation Tuesday night, then the full council will make its decision on Sept. 17.
The four options at both dams are full removal, partial removal or creation of a stepped spillway on the drop side of the dam or creation of a rock ramp on the drop side. The last two options would eliminate the drop that creates a roller effect in the water below the dam that makes it very difficult for a person to escape if he goes over the dam.
According to the state, removal or partial removal would be the most cost-effective option and would benefit fish habitat, because it will increase the number of fish that can move up and down the rivers to spawn, and it will open up about 175 miles of streams and channels throughout the Salt Fork and Middle Fork river system for fish to migrate upstream from the Wabash River in Indiana.
But local fishermen have argued that the dams will eliminate the pooling effect that creates deeper water upstream of the dams and eliminating that would be detrimental to the fish habitat. The state confirmed that the depth of the river above the dams would be more shallow, which would reduce or eliminate the ability for fishermen to use their motorized boats to access the Vermilion River above the dam.
When this agenda item comes up Tuesday night, Eisenhauer said he plans to transfer the gavel to the city council's vice mayor, so he can participate in the debate. Eisenhauer, who was involved in emergency management prior to becoming mayor, has said since the most recent drowning in 2003 that he wants the dams removed for safety reasons.
He formed a committee almost 10 years ago to decide what to do with the dams after the fatal accident in July 2003 when four canoeists went over the Vermilion River dam. One of the four, 24-year-old Sandra Barnett, was a University of Illinois graduate from Woodridge. She drowned before rescuers could get to the dam, and the other three canoeists — who were teenage girls from Champaign-Urbana — made it to safety. One of the teens got to the bank and ran for help, and rescuers pulled the other two to safety. They were on a canoe trip down the Middlefork River in Kickapoo State Park but floated several miles beyond their take-out spot and went over the lowhead dam, where both canoes capsized.
Lowhead dams are known as "drowning machines," because the water spilling over the dam creates a hydraulic effect at the base of the dam's face. As water spills over the barrier, a "roller" is created as water circulates back into the face of the dam. The roller can trap a swimmer, even one wearing a life jacket. Both structures in Danville are lowhead dams, which are less than 25 feet high and extend across an entire river channel. They are not flood-control dams but run-of-river, meaning they don't block the flow of water but slow it, creating a pool of water above them. The Vermilion River dam was built in 1914 by Danville Street Railway and Light Co. The Ellsworth Park dam was for recreational swimming.
According to the state, most lowhead dams in Illinois were typically built in the 19th and early 20th centuries to provide water power, and they have historically posed a public safety hazard throughout the country and state, according to a 2007 report commissioned by the state of Illinois, documenting existing conditions and possible safety improvements at 25 run-of-river dams, including the Vermilion River dam.
In 2006 alone, there were several drowning deaths at lowhead dams in Illinois, according to that report. There are no official, historical statistics on such incidents in Illinois, but anecdotal evidence suggests there are several incidents across Illinois at lowhead dams each year, according to the report.
Source: Illinois Department of Natural Resources website