PENFIELD — Matt Kuntz learned to swim as a young boy at Willow Pond, a regular summertime swimming hole for him while growing up.
That’s just one reason the superintendent at Middlefork River Forest Preserve gets passionate about wanting to revive the preserve’s man-made pond, which has been struggling with low water levels and water-quality issues that have repeatedly forced him to close the beach to swimmers in recent years, even on big camping weekends, like Labor Day last year.
Another is seeing young campers walk to the beach and turn around disappointed when it’s closed.
“I want to fix that. It’s a tough deal,” said Kuntz, who noticed water levels dropping more than normal about five years ago.
Kuntz said the pond is generally only 8 feet deep at best right now.
Champaign County Forest Preserve District officials also want to restore the pond, not only to give campground swimmers and others a revived swimming hole but also as a natural resource. But they’ll have to raise about $250,000 to pay for it.
An engineering evaluation determined that a cavity or hole has opened in the sand and gravel vein below the pond, causing it to lose water more rapidly. Kuntz said his own tracking of water levels has shown the water level dropping a foot per week.
The occasional presence of E. coli bacteria in the water in levels beyond what is considered safe has also been a major issue for swimmers. Kuntz, who is required to regularly collect water samples and submit them to the Illinois Department of Public Health, must close the beach when E. coli tests show levels above the mandated threshold.
Kuntz said the low water levels, an increased population of geese using the pond, a build-up of silt from runoff and other factors have increased the frequency of closing the pond.
“Man-made ponds do have a life expectancy,” he said, adding that Willow Pond was built in the late 1970s to early 1980s, meaning it is now near the end of its life expectancy of 35 to 40 years.
The pond would be emptied, then dredged and deepened — to improve water quality and fish habitat — and a clay liner would to be added to prevent a recurrence of its drastic water loss.
The island in the center, also possibly man-made, would be removed in order to eliminate a major attraction for geese.
“We have 1,700 other acres where the geese can live a very happy life,” Kuntz said. Within the preserve, there are two other waterfowl areas.
After restoration, the deeper portion of the pond — not part of the swimming area — would be 15 to 18 feet, according to Kuntz, and designed in a way that will create a good ecosystem.
“It’s going to be done the proper way,” he said.
In the recreational area of the pond, a gradual slope would extend from the beach to the buoy line marking the edge of the swimming area.
The design also calls for fishing nodes jutting out from the bank for better access, an accessible walkway along the shore, and permanent concrete stations for bags games near the beach area.
Executive Director Mary Ellen Wuellner said the district applied for an Open Space Lands Acquisition grant through the state but learned that governmental officials won’t award such funds for projects that include dredging. No other state or federal grants match this kind of project.
“We were really disappointed,” said Wuellner, explaining that grants are the only way the district can pay for capital projects of this size.
She said they’ve earmarked $50,000 in district reserves, but it would take years for the district to pay for the project by setting aside money each year.
“It’s too important of a resource to wait that long,” Wuellner said.
So the district has launched a capital campaign to raise the rest.
It started with a brochure explaining the problem and solution; one was mailed to anyone who has camped at Middlefork in the last five years.
That has raised about $2,000 so far, and donations are still trickling in to the nonprofit Forest Preserve Friends Foundation, Wuellner said, so officials are now appealing to the public for more donations.
She said the district can get grant funds to pay for the amenities that will complement a restored Willow Pond, but the actual draining, dredging and rebuilding will have to be done with a combination of district dollars and donations.
This is a feature of Middlefork that district officials really want to continue offering for those who visit, especially since the preserve was designated last year as an International Dark Sky park.
Kuntz and Wuellner said they’re seeing more out-of-the-area visitors and campers migrating to Middlefork because of the designation, which was achieved by limiting light pollution at the park.
“If we can fix the pond, we can add even more recreational amenities,” Wuellner said.