by Justin Kiel

On January 11th, the Kankakee River Basin Commission met for over four hours to discuss a plethora of topics relating to the river.

The meeting was called to order at 9:39 a.m. and began with the approval of Scott Pelath as the executive director for the KRBC. Pelath was previously the Minority Leader of the Indiana House of Representatives. The new executive director addressed the audience and affirmed his passion for water use and regional planning.

Next, the Commission passed a resolution recognizing former executive director Jody Melton for his 38 years of service. The passage of the resolution was followed by a standing ovation.

Officers were elected, and the budget for 2019 was approved. The KRBC will no longer be housed at the offices of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission in Portage but will continue to utilize some of NIRPC’s resources and compensate them at a rate of $14,708 per year. The Commission also agreed to auction off a 2015 truck that was used by the previous executive director.

A presentation was made by Representative Gutwein (R) about his legislation, House Bill 1270. The bill eliminates the KRBC and replaces it with the Kankakee River Basin Development Commission. The newly formed KRBDC would have all the same functions as its predecessor and would consist of nine members, one appointed by the executive of each county in the basin as well as one individual appointed by the Governor. The members appointed would serve four-year terms and be required to have a background in construction, project management, flood control, drainage, or a similar professional background. The bill also allows for the creation of advisory committees.

Gutwein indicated that original language involving a drainage assessment and eminent domain would be removed through amendments. Language to include the Yellow River drainage basin would be added. The bill was heard in committee on Tuesday and passed with a vote of 11-0.

Some individuals at the meeting expressed concern about the possibility that the county appointments to the new commission could become political and make the body less effective or representative of the people it serves. Representatives Pressel and Gutwein insisted that the request to change the commission composition was one they had heard repeatedly from constituents. Nonetheless, some commission members stated they knew nothing about the bill and had not been consulted or informed by the legislators. Some commissioners appeared reluctant to fight the desires of the legislators to streamline the commission structure for fear of jeopardizing the need for the KRBC to receive state funding. The organization is angling for $600,000 to be earmarked in the state’s budget for KRBC projects.

The meeting then shifted to a report by Siavash Beik and Robert Barr of Christopher Burke Engineering. The presentation, which consisted of over 80 slides, lasted about 2 hours.

The firm is conducting a study funded by both Indiana and Illinois to diagnose the root causes of erosion, sedimentation, and flooding through detailed assessment; communicating the extent of existing risks and expected trends; identifying strategies for addressing issues in a system-wide approach; and developing a work plan for implementing various strategies.

The presentation began with a detailed overview of the history of the Kankakee River, focusing in depth about the composition of the river and the process by which the marsh was drained. They noted that the soil composition of the drainage basin is largely sand which reaches over 100 feet in depth in some areas. LIDAR imagery of straightened sections of the river were shown.

The researchers noted that the Kankakee is largely stable, and unlike some rivers, is not changing and carving out new paths. This played into a central theme of the presentation: dredging was not the solution. Mr. Barr, who is a research scientist studying fluvial geomorphology and hydrology at the Center for Earth and Environmental Science at IUPUI, on multiple occasions told those in attendance that dredging would not have a significant impact on reducing flooding. Mr. Beik compared dredging the river to going to the beach and scooping out a handful of wet sand—ultimately the stability of the sand around it would be compromised and slough back into the hole that was just dug. They rejected the idea that piling that dredged sand on the banks would solve flooding either. Further, they warned that should the Kankakee be dredged, it could destabilize the banks, which were constructed to standards that would not be used today, causing more sediment to enter the river and require more dredging in the future without actually solving the problem.

They also pointed out that when the river was dredged in the early 1900s, numerous curves that were cut from the primary river alignment were not always separated from the river and that water could still enter those areas. To actually do any good, levees would need to either go around each of the old bends or be built along the entire length of the primary river alignment. Any ditches that drain into the river would also require levees to prevent water from escaping. In addition, portions of the river bank were never meant to act as levees and were in reality just piles of sediment scooped from the river during the early days when it was straightened.

Even if the river was dredged and the levees raised and improved, which Illinois has blocked in court during previous lawsuits, the researchers still pointed to their findings that say there is still not enough capacity in the river. During the early 2018 flood, approximately 220,000 acre-feet of water was sitting in fields throughout the drainage basin, an amount roughly equivalent to the entirety of Starke County flooded by one foot of water.

Compounding problems, research analysis showed an increase in annual river discharge as well as flood events. The flood stage has grown higher and the number of days above flood stage is also increasing. Likely culprits were increased precipitation and increased runoff from fields and urban areas. The findings don’t point toward any changing in the trends and flood events may become more frequent and intense in the coming years.

The researchers noted that this isn’t the first time a study of the river has been completed. In 1989 a master plan for the Kankakee River called for the construction of wide levees. The premise was to construct the primary flood protection levees further away from the river, adding capacity and mitigating flooding. However, farmers often fear this means that agricultural land will just be converted back into swampland.

The presentation concluded with a list of recommendations. First and foremost, the reduction of sediment supply from the Yellow River and eroded river banks was made a priority. Next, it calls for strategically opening the river bank in areas where there is space for water storage. They suggest compensating farmers in areas that would be deliberately inundated during flood events. Additionally, their findings call for strategic flood protection around critical facilities and key infrastructure while also removing bridges that are causing debris to be caught. Stormwater ordinances, drainage impact reduction measures, flood response plans, and flood resilience plans were also called for. In total, the recommendations came with an initial cost estimate of over $100 million over the next 20 years.

Ultimately, the full study of the river system is still very much in the works. The Friday presentation was largely to give the KRBC initial guidance at a time when they are requesting funds from the state legislature. The final plan will be made available later this year.

At the conclusion of the presentation, LaPorte County Surveyor Tony Hendricks told those in attendance he didn’t agree with the findings of the study and moved to not support the work of the researchers. Hendricks’ motion received only two votes and was struck down.

Further discussion followed, and eventually, the KRBC approved a motion to request funds from the state for bank improvement work as recommended by the researchers, a premise that appeared agreeable with all parties. Nonetheless, discussion over the future of flood mitigation along the Kankakee will undoubtedly continue to be a hot topic going forward.

The meeting adjourned at 1:48 p.m. The KRBC will meet again on February 14th at 9:30 a.m. at the Fish and Wildlife Headquarters located at 4320 S. Toto Road in North Judson.

Justin Kiel
Staff Reporter

Justin Kiel is the owner and publisher of The Regional News. He is a seven-time award winning journalist based in LaCrosse, IN.