Drainage district's clearing work on Salt Fork leaves some residents floored

Drainage district's clearing work on Salt Fork leaves some residents floored

ST. JOSEPH — A couple of weeks ago, Diane and Jim Wardrop heard the sound of heavy equipment and crashing trees somewhere in their Heather Hills neighborhood, along the upper section of the Salt Fork River, north of St. Joseph.

When Jim went to investigate at the back of their property — a wooded area along the river — he popped out of the trees into a clearing, roughly 30 feet from the bank, and couldn't believe what he saw.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what have they done?'" he recalled.

"We were just speechless, just totally speechless," Diane Wardrop said, recalling that her first thought was, "Who did this and why?"

Trees and vegetation had been cleared — down to exposed soil — in a roughly 30-foot swath along the edge of the river. The leveled strip, along just one bank, extends for about a mile along the waterway, crossing the property lines of at least a dozen owners in the Heather Hills neighborhood, where properties back up to the stream.

The day Jim Wardrop went to investigate, the heavy-equipment operator was still at work on his neighbors' property. The work stopped within days of the Wardrops making phone calls trying to find out who'd done the clearing without notifying them.

A neighbor whose property had also been affected had been calling around, too, and more than a dozen are now in regular contact with each other over the issue. And at least one has contacted an attorney.

Property owners learned the work had been ordered by the Upper Salt Fork Drainage District, a local body governed by three elected commissioners.

Drainage districts are authorized by state law to levy an assessment on all landowners within them to cover costs of maintaining and improving drainage, which in the Upper Salt Fork includes about 21 miles of waterway, stretching from Rantoul to about 3 miles south of St. Joseph, where it empties into the Salt Fork. It passes by Heather Hills.

Drainage districts also have a right of way, allowing them access to properties to maintain drainage. The Wardrops said they and their neighbors aren't certain how far from the bank that right of way extends.

Regardless, they are upset that no one bothered to contact them before the clearing was done. But they say they're not sure whether the district is required by law to notify landowners if work is deemed "maintenance."

'We've got the legal right'

Jeff Tock, a Champaign attorney who represents the drainage district, said the easement in that area of the waterway is 200 feet total, meaning 100 feet in either direction from the center of the waterway. He explained that the district also has easements in side yards of some Heather Hills properties to give the district access for maintenance, like pulling trees and blockages from the waterway.

"We've got the legal right to be within the easement," he said.

Tock said the district has received a lot of complaints through the years about flooding from residents in Heather Hills, including this spring. He said there hasn't been any maintenance done in that area in many years.

"Commissioners this year decided to get in there and take some action," he said, explaining that part of the problem dates back to when the subdivision was built. Apparently, no one checked to see if it was in a flood plain.

"And actually, much of it is in a flood plain," Tock said. "And it doesn't take much to flood people's houses."

Drainage District Commissioner Mark Weckel said this recent maintenance work was initiated to clear a blockage in the waterway, which he emphasized is a "ditch, a man-made, man-modified waterway." He said there was a tree down that had backed up "a bunch of debris" during flooding earlier this year, and a contractor hired by the district was called in to remove the blockage.

While on site, he said, there were some other trees leaning into the ditch, and the contractor "went ahead and cleaned them out."

But the Wardrops said they don't understand clearing nearly all the trees for nearly a mile along one bank, especially trees that weren't leaning or dead or were far enough from the bank to never reach the waterway if they did fall.

In describing the work done, Weckel said it appeared trees on the bank were very likely to fall into the ditch farther south of the original blockage. He said two property owners in the Heather Hills area have contacted commissioners and are pleased with the work, because they believe it could help stop water getting in their houses. They live several doors down from the Wardrops.

Piles of debris remain

As to whether the clearing would alleviate that problem, Weckel said, "It can't hurt."

But he said there are too many miles of limited flow to the south of those properties. The ditch flattens out along that section, he added, stalling the water flow north of St. Joseph. South of town, it picks up where the ground falls at a steeper rate, according to Weckel.

"But it is relatively flat through there, and that's the problem," he said. "There's just not enough fall to keep the water moving."

The Wardrops say they understand removing trees and debris in the river to eliminate blockages. They're OK with the "selective" removal of dead or falling trees along the banks as well. But they don't understand clear-cutting that extends so far from the bank and on only one side of the river.

"We have a hard time understanding clear-cutting the bank being maintenance, from our point of view," Diane Wardrop said. "We see erosion, sediment running into the river, huge massive trees piled up and shrubbery. We see that potentially blocking the channel and creating more back water."

Weckel said the piles of debris will either be removed or burned after they dry out, and there will be some seeding done on the banks.

He said it takes a while for large green trees to dry out, and the cost of removing all of the debris "is such that we will not haul it all out." He said another commissioner arranged the work but didn't disclose who completed it. The Wardrops believe it was an excavator.

'I'm just befuddled'

The Wardrops and about a dozen other property owners want to meet with commissioners to get their questions answered.

"Until we can talk to commissioners and understand their point of view and ours, we are just left with a lot of questions," Diane Wardrop said.

In addition to being saddened by the damage to trees, especially one split in half vertically and left standing at the edge of the bank, Diane Wardrop said wildlife has also been disrupted.

"We see birds, hawks, coyotes, foxes, deer. They had their pathways, and that's been destroyed," she said. "I'm just befuddled by what they did. The damage is done.

"What do we do now?"