What needs changing at Champaign County's only beach?

What needs changing at Champaign County's only beach?

PENFIELD — Plenty of campers and other visitors to the Middle Fork River Forest Preserve through the years have let officials know their opinions of the lake and beach — the only public swim beach in Champaign County.

Opinions such as the water level is too low, and there are too many geese that drop loads of unwanted "presents."

The public will get a chance to formally present those opinions at a forum from 2 to 4 p.m. today in the preserve's activity center.

Site Superintendent Matt Kuntz said the lake and beach are showing their age, and district officials want to do something about that.

"The last several years, we have noticed severe levels dropping in the pond," Kuntz said. "We had an engineer's study done. It was found there were leaks. The floor had degraded."

Kuntz said the pond is 40 years old, and changes are needed.

He said fixing the problem would be a big project that would include draining the pond, digging it out, dredging it and installing a new clay liner before refilling.

"Along those lines, we want to talk to the public about what else would (they) be interested in as far as more amenities, more 'to-do's,' more activities during their stays," Kuntz said.

He said the park is expected to be full of campers during one of the busiest weekends of the year for Labor Day. Thus, the decision to hold the forum that day.

"Many of the public have been (coming to Middle Fork) from the beginning," Kuntz said.

The low water level could be part of what caused the State Public Health Department to close the beach Wednesday afternoon.

Department spokeswoman Melanie Arnold said high bacteria levels prompted the closure. Health officials test the water at Middle Fork twice a month.

Arnold said several factors can cause bacteria levels to rise, including low water levels and rains that wash sediments into the lake.

Kuntz said some people blame the number of geese at the lake. He also said he expected the lake's closure prior to a busy weekend would drive up the number of people who attend the forum.

Kuntz said the forest preserve district has undertaken a great many improvements at Middle Fork over the years, but "the beach is still that lingering problem ... for us."

Willow Pond is a stillwater with no pure aqua source, which makes maintaining its level a challenge.

The lake hasn't receded as much this year thanks to steady rains. Still, the water level is low — so much so that someone standing next to the buoy line that indicates deep water will be in only 2 feet of water.

"As far as recreation level, there's not much left," Kuntz said.

While public interest in the beach and lake have waned, the opposite is true for geese.

"The geese absolutely love this pond," Kuntz said. "We, obviously, do not disturb the geese. We are still a forest preserve. (But) the waste that the geese produce is also a deterrent."

Maybe, however, the geese can be convinced to go elsewhere in the preserve. Kuntz said one reason the geese like the pond is the island in the middle is a perfect habitat. One possibility is to remove the island, which is overgrown with quite a bit of plant life that district officials don't want.

Dave Hinton is editor of the Rantoul Press, a News-Gazette Media community newspaper. For more, visit rantoulpress.com.