DANVILLE — After years of discussion and study, the city and the state may move forward this year with removal of the Vermilion River dam, the site of three drownings since 1995.
Likely this month, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources will submit to the city a strategic planning study, outlining its research of various options for removal, or modification, of the dam on the Vermilion River and another dam on the North Fork River in Ellsworth Park.
Marc Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the state will recommend removing both dams.
Removal is the best option for the state, public safety, fish habitat and taxpayer dollars, Miller said, although the final decision will be made jointly by the city and the state, because the city owns the dams, and the state has earmarked money to remove some low-head dams in Illinois.
But some local fishermen, like Jim King and Ann Wells, don't want the dams removed, because they believe that would hurt river levels upstream and fish habitat. They support altering the drop side, or face, of the dams, making them safer while still maintaining the pooling effect upstream of the dams that is a benefit to fishermen and their boats.
According to the department, its strategic planning study for the two dams has taken under consideration four options at both dams: full removal or partial removal and then alterations, including a stepped spillway or a rock ramp. The last two options would be modifications to the face, or drop side, of the dam, that would eliminate the drop that creates the roller effect and poses the most danger.
But Miller said removing the dams will 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. Also, Miller said, there will be an improvement in water quality, and there will be unfettered access for paddling on the Vermilion River. Essentially, he said, a canoe or kayak could go from the upper reaches of the Salt Fork River in Champaign County to the Wabash River in western Indiana.
"That will help tourism," he said.
The Salt Fork, Middle Fork and North Fork rivers merge into the Vermilion River, which flows through Danville and then southeast into Indiana, where it joins the Wabash River at Cayuga.
Danville city administration officials also support removing the dams, primarily for public safety and the safety of emergency personnel who respond to incidents like the most recent one, in July 2003, when four canoeists went over the Vermilion River dam. One of the four canoeists, 24-year-old Sandra Barnett, a University of Illinois graduate and Woodridge native, drowned before rescuers could get to the dam, which is not easily accessible because of a steep 50-foot bank on the north side of the dam and a wooded, undeveloped flood plain with no vehicle access on the south side.
The other three canoeists were teenage girls from Champaign-Urbana. The foursome took a canoe trip down the Middle Fork River in Kickapoo State Park but floated several miles beyond their take-out spot and the state park boundary and eventually went over the low-head dam, where both canoes capsized. One of the teens made it to the bank and ran for help, and rescuers were able to pull out the other two teens who were clinging to objects floating in the churning water.
There have also been incidents at the Ellsworth Park dam, which is upstream from where the North Fork merges with the Vermilion River, and that merging point is only about 350 yards from the low-head dam on the Vermilion.
King said he has been contacting Danville aldermen, trying to build support against total removal of the dams. Like King, Wells often fishes the Vermilion River upstream of the low-head dam. Wells is circulating a petition against removal.
King said there are protected fish species in the rivers, and Wells said the section of the Vermilion River upstream from the dam is a haven for smallmouth bass, and removing the dam would endanger that fish habitat, because the river level would be lowered significantly. She said there are deep holes the fish need, but also very shallow areas along the river, and the motor on her aluminum boat hits bottom in places even now. If the dam is removed, she said, the river will be "a little stream" with pools here and there, and the new boat ramp the city built in Ellsworth Park on the North Fork would become "a ramp to nowhere."
Alderman Bill Black, Ward 7, said King has contacted him more than once about the issue, and he's explained that the council and others must not overreact before the state's report has even been presented.
"We need to just wait and see the report and see what the options are. I'm not going to get too excited about it until I read the report," said Black, adding that any impacts on fishing, river bank erosion and other concerns will be addressed in the report.
In 2005, two years after the death of Barnett, Danville officials formed a local committee that also studied the dams and ultimately recommended total removal if funding could be identified. The city did not have the money to pay for removal, and the committee determined that the Vermilion dam was deteriorating and altering it to make it safer would be more costly. Signs and buoys were added along the Vermilion River to warn anyone on the river to the danger of the dam ahead, but the dam is an attractive fishing spot, and locals can often be found fishing at the Vermilion River dam.
In 2007, then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn launched the Illinois Dam Safety Initiative to educate the public about dam safety and propose changes to make waterways safer.
Since then, the state has appropriated money toward that goal and has removed or altered several low-head dams in Illinois. This past October, Gov. Quinn announced the removal or modification of 16 low-head dams throughout the state over the next few years, including the dams in Danville. Last year, three of those dams along the Des Plaines River in the Chicago area were removed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and sponsored by the Department of Natural Resources.
Miller said generally the low-head dams across the state no longer serve their original purpose, so that fact coupled with the fact that they are a detriment to public safety and the health of fish habitat, clearly leads the state to prefer dam removal as the option.
King said another concern for him is that removing the dam will open up the river system to the Asian carp, an invasive fish species.
Miller said Asian carp are in the Wabash River, but the habitat above the Vermilion dam is not overly conducive to the Asian carp, and the department doesn't anticipate it spreading throughout the system. Miller said the department has a good program at controlling them and will be monitoring them as well.
Miller added that already in the Des Plaines River where dams were removed last year, a number of species are being found that hadn't been present previously.
"It's going to actually improve spawning and fishing conditions," Miller said of removing the dams in Danville.
But the change, he said, is there will no longer be a pool above both dams and that will mean lower river levels in that section of the river, which means bass fishing boats and john boats likely will not be able to navigate the river at times.
"But on the flip side of that, you will have better fishing opportunities," he said.
And, Miller said, removal is the cheapest option, and in the long run, removal is an option that will have less maintenance costs in the future compared with modifying the dams.
And full removal is the best option for safety, he said. Dam modifications only lessen dangers around dams, because hydraulic rollers can still be present around modified dams.
"Dams are dangerous, and we need people to stay away from them and avoid them, and that's why we have the money to do this, plus the ecology benefits," he said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Ann Wells is a member of the Illini Bass Club. She is not.