DANVILLE — The city council's public works committee didn't give its recommendation Tuesday night to a proposal to remove the Ellsworth Park dam or the dam on the Vermilion River.
During public comments, several residents asked aldermen to vote against removing both low head dams, which Danville city administration and Illinois Department of Natural Resources officials have recommended for removal for safety reasons and for restoration of the river's natural ecosystem. Drownings have occurred at both dams in the last 20 years, but some local fishermen are opposed to full removal of the dams and prefer altering them to make them more safe and retain the pooling effect above the dams, which is important to fishing.
The vote on the Ellsworth dam was 3-2-1 with one alderman absent. A proposal needs four "yes" votes to receive a recommendation. Jon Cooper, Mike O'Kane and Mike Puhr voted for removing the Ellsworth Park dam, and Rickey Williams Jr. and Bill Black voted against removing it, and Rick Strebing voted "present." Alderman R.J. Davis was absent. And the vote to remove the Vermilion River dam was 2-4 with Strebing and Cooper voting "yes," and Williams, Black, O'Kane and Puhr voting "no," so that also will go to the full council next week without a recommendation from the public works committee.
Although the committee did not give its recommendation to either, the final decision still rests with the full city council next week. But there was some support Tuesday night for possibly delaying a decision for 30 days or more and making a request to Gov. Pat Quinn's office for funding for altering the dams rather than removing them.
Quinn has made it a state priority to remove lowhead dams across the state, and last year announced that he has earmarked funds for the removal of more than a dozen lowhead dams, including the two owned by Danville — one on the North Fork in Ellsworth Park the other on the Vermilion River immediately east of Memorial Bridge on South Gilbert Street.
Lowhead dams are a public safety concern, because the movement of the water below such dams make it difficult for a person to escape. Drownings have occurred at lowhead dams across the state, not just in Danville.
But Natural Resources officials told aldermen Tuesday night that their report recommends removing the dams as the most feasible option for safety and ecosystem restoration, and the governor's appropriated funds are for removal of dams.
"The funding right now has been identified for dam removal, but it doesn't mean that it couldn't be re purposed if the governor chooses," said Rick Gosch from the department's office of water resources.
But Black pointed out that the state paid the whole bill for the alteration of a lowhead dam in Yorkville rather than removal. Black also confirmed with Natural Resources officials that the state's recommendation is just that and is not a mandate. The city council can decide to do nothing with the dams, but city and state officials explained that particularly the dam on the Vermilion River is deteriorating and they have no idea when it might fail.
If it does, it would be at the cost of the city to clean up the debris from a dam failure. And Public Works Director Doug Ahrens also explained that one of the abutments of that dam is supporting the steep bank on the north side of the Vermilion River and if that bank collapses, it could create issues with South Street directly above it.
But Natural Resources officials told city officials and aldermen Tuesday night that they do have the ability to appeal to the governor's office for funding for one of the other options rather than removal.
Other options are more costly and include building a step spillway or a rock ramp on the down river side of the dams. Those changes would eliminate the dangerous roller effect that can trap a person in the water below the dam and would also retain the pooling effect above the dam that fishermen want.