Danville council to take final vote on dam removal

DANVILLE — Danville aldermen will finally vote Tuesday night whether to remove two city-owned lowhead dams at the state's expense.

Although the city council has discussed the issue for almost a year, some aldermen are still undecided, the rest split, they expressed in interviews with The News-Gazette on Monday.

"I think the vote will be very close," Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said. "I just hope in the end, a majority of the aldermen understand the opportunity we have to mitigate a risk with very little, if any, city dollars being spent."

City administrators and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources have recommended removing both dams — for public safety and other reasons. Eisenhauer said he'd vote that way if there were a tie among aldermen.

On the eve of tonight's scheduled vote, nothing was certain.

— Alderman Kevin Davis, Ward 1, said he will vote to remove both the Danville dam on the Vermilion River and the Ellsworth Park dam.

Both are lowhead dams, or run-of-river dams, that slow the rivers, causing a pooling effect upstream, but don't completely block the rivers. Both dams no longer serve any official function, both are deteriorating, and both have been the site of drownings. Some local fishermen object to their removal — especially the Danville dam — because it will lower the water level upstream, making it more difficult to get fishing boats on the water. Fishermen claim removal will be detrimental to the river; state natural resource officials counter that removal will improve fish habitat.

Lowhead dams are known as "drowning machines" because, as the water spills over them, a roller effect occurs in the water just below the dam, which can trap a swimmer.

Davis said the dams are old and need be removed. Other work can be done in the future to enhance fishing along the river, he said. He also favors their removal because the city can't afford to do it — and the state will.

— Alderman Rick Strebing, Ward 2, said he will likely vote to remove the Ellsworth dam but not the dam on the Vermilion River. Strebing didn't want to elaborate on why he plans to vote that way.

— Alderman R.J. Davis, Ward 3, said he's unsure how he'll vote. He admitted to leaning one way, but didn't want to disclose which. Davis said most people in his ward that he's spoken with want to keep the dams.

— Alderman Sharon McMahon, Ward 4, said she is on the fence but believes she'll vote from a business perspective. The city knows the dams are a liability but hasn't had the money to do anything about it, she said. If the city doesn't OK the state's offer to pay for the dams' removal, she wondered, what happens the next time someone gets hurt — or worse?

— Mike O'Kane, the other Ward 4 alderman, said he is in favor of taking out the Ellsworth dam but not the dam on the Vermilion River. He said the Vermilion dam is in poor shape, but he doesn't want to give up the pooling effect above it.

— Alderman Mike Puhr, Ward 5, also expressed no reservations about voting to remove the Ellsworth Park dam, but said he needs more information before deciding about the Vermilion River dam.

City officials say the bank on the north side of the Vermilion River dam is seriously eroding, causing a stability problem with Walnut Street, which sits high above that structure. If the state removes the dam, it will take care of that bank stabilization issue, officials have said, but if the city must do that on its own, it could cost more than $500,000.

Puhr said that issue is a big concern for him, but he wants to be assured that the state's work really would stabilize the bank and eliminate the problem.

— Tom Stone, the other Ward 5 alderman, said he has been on the fence but is leaning toward removal of both dams.

"I really am struggling with this," said Stone, who listed numerous pros and cons to removal of both dams, including public safety and the benefit to local contractors (if the dams were removed) and to local fishermen (if they weren't).

"I think there are a lot of good arguments on both sides," he said. "... A lot of people consider (the dams) as part of their heritage, almost as if they are raising them up to historic-structure status."

Stone said the money to maintain the dams is not in the city's budget, and he doesn't believe anyone wants to start allocating the kind of funds that would require. "If the state is stepping forward to provide us the money to do it ... I think we are remiss if we pass up that opportunity," he said.

But Stone believes the decision comes down to safety — protecting the public and first responders who'd respond to emergencies at the dams.

"I look at this whole issue on balance, and I really cannot in good conscience go against a solution that would clearly save lives or put people less at risk," he said.

— Alderman Steve Foster, Ward 7, said he has made up his mind but does not want to disclose how he will vote.

"There are good arguments for and against, and I will just try to weigh out the arguments and explain where I am and why," he said.

— Alderman Bill Black, Ward 7, said he will not vote to remove the Ellsworth Park dam, because he doesn't see a critical reason to do that. If there is a critical issue, he said, it's with the dam on the Vermilion River, but he still has a lot of unanswered questions.

The end?

If the weather cooperates, tonight could be the night Danville residents learn whether two much-discussed lowhead dams will stay — or go.

What: City council meeting

When: 6 p.m.

Where: Municipal building, 17 W. Main St., Danville.

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