Removal of two river dams in Danville back on track

Removal of two river dams in Danville back on track

DANVILLE — More than two years ago, state officials were ready to remove two river dams in Danville, when the state's budget impasse stalled the process.

But this month, exactly four years after the Danville City Council voted to remove both city-owned dams largely for safety reasons, Danville officials received news that funds for removal have been reappropriated to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which is coordinating both projects.

"I'm optimistic that one will be done in this calendar year," said Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer, who received the news in an email from IDNR officials. He said city officials are still cautious, noting that one of the dam removals will be dependent on the bidding process.

The smaller dam on the North Fork River in Ellsworth Park will be done in-house by IDNR.

But the larger dam on the Vermilion River — where Sandra Barnett, 24, a University of Illinois graduate and Woodridge native, drowned in July 2003 before rescuers could get to her — will require a private contractor.

"Our plan currently is to advertise that project in the spring or early summer," said Rick Pohlman with IDNR, referring to the Vermilion River dam. He added that both projects could go this year, but the Vermilion River dam will depend on whether the state receives responsible bids that are within budget, and once awarded, the timeline will depend on a contractor's schedule. Pohlman said the larger dam could possibly require a two-year schedule.

"It could happen this year; at least we could initiate that project this year," he said.

Pohlman confirmed that Natural Resources will remove the Ellsworth dam, but he didn't comment on a timeline. He said it's early in the process, but added that it's possible that project could start and finish this year.

Both of the low-head dams have been the site of drownings in the last 50 years, and the city of Danville decided to remove the dams for public safety and liability reasons despite strong objections from area fishermen and others.

Low-head dams have been called "drowning machines," because the water spills over them and creates a roller effect in the water just below the dam, which can trap a swimmer. A sign posted at the Ellsworth dam warns of the roller effect. Both dams in Danville no longer serve any official function, and both are deteriorating.

Although the city owns the dams, the state pledged prior to the city council's vote in 2013 that it would cover the cost. At the time, the price tag for both was estimated around $2.5 million.

In July 2015, IDNR's water resources manager Rick Gosch said all state projects using capital dollars were suspended as of June 30 of that year, including the dam removals.

At the time, Gosch, who is now retired, explained that just two portions of the Ellsworth Park dam removal needed state capital dollars — a contract for special waste hauling of the material that will be removed from the river and the placement of stone aggregate on the banks to stabilize the area after the dam is removed. The supplies and actual removal were going to be done with state crew and equipment.

If not for the aggregate and waste hauling, IDNR still could have moved forward with the project in 2015. Gosch had estimated it would take about a month, depending on weather, for the Ellsworth project.