It's the halfway mark for the Heritage Park flood control project, and the glass is half full, so to speak, for the Des Plaines River towns in northern Cook County that habitually flood when heavy rains come.
At this point in the $32 million project, three of the six storage basins in the Wheeling park are excavated and could take water in an emergency, even while they are not finished.
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The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District says the flood control project is expected to be complete in summer 2014. If only Mother Nature would lay off in the meantime.
How it works
Heritage Park in Wheeling is along Buffalo Creek, an 11.2-mile tributary of the Des Plaines River that starts in Lake Zurich and flows mostly southeast, dumping into the river near Chicago Executive Airport in Wheeling.
In heavy rains, the creek becomes swollen and wild, gathering more and more water as it rushes downstream toward the river.
The new reservoirs at Heritage Park are designed to hold back a lot of that water before it gets to the river, thereby easing the potential flooding downstream in Wheeling, Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights.
There's no switch to turn the reservoirs on; in heavy rains the basins will fill naturally, by gravity. When the water recedes, the stored water will be slowly pumped out of the reservoirs and back into the creek, making them ready for the next storm.
All six of the basins together make 151 acres of new water storage.
Three of the six basins are extensions of Lake Heritage, which already acts as stormwater detention.
The fourth is the new Heritage Park soccer field, which doubles as water storage.
The final two basins are directly adjacent to Buffalo Creek.
One widens an area of the creek to fill as the water levels rise; the other is on the east side of Buffalo Creek and is filled via a spillway.
"We are providing a floodplain shelf that will fill and empty with the ebb and flow of Buffalo Creek," said Allison Fore, public and intergovernmental affairs officer for the MWRD.
The soccer field and two of the basins attached to Heritage Lake are excavated. The other three are in progress.
When the Heritage Park reservoirs are completely online, Levee 37 will be completed.
The $28 million Levee 37 -- 10,200 feet of floodwall built along Milwaukee Avenue to protect Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights from the rising Des Plaines River -- was deliberately left unfinished.
The 600-foot "gap" in the levee is there so that in protecting Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights, the levee doesn't push more water downstream to Des Plaines.
When Heritage Park is finished, the gap in Levee 37 will be filled in.
"We are preparing to award a contract for the levee," said Jeff Zuercher, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager for the upper Des Plaines River. "We want to be prepped and ready to go, then the contractor will be able to do their work as soon as we get word from MWRD that the compensatory storage is complete."
This is good for Mount Prospect and Prospect Heights.
In Des Plaines, which had massive flooding in April, the effects of Heritage Park will be minimal, authorities say. True, Levee 37 won't be a potential source of more flooding, because Heritage Park will offset about the same amount of water as Levee 37. But had Heritage Park been fully operational in April, it wouldn't have prevented the disaster in Des Plaines, they say.
Still, Mayor Matt Bogusz thinks all flood-prevention measures are positive.
"We're looking forward to the conclusion of the Heritage Park project, as well as other opportunities to affect change in flood zones," he said.
Bogusz also said he has been working on flood control projects at the city level, including embarking on a $10 million, five-year plan to fix flooding issues in his city.
Wheeling's new park
In addition to flood control, residents of Wheeling can look forward to the rest of the park, which has been unusable since the overhaul began.
Both Fore and Wheeling Park District Executive Director Jan Buchs say some park amenities could open sooner.
"The new recreational amenities in the area west of Buffalo Creek are expected to be opened in late spring or early summer 2014," Fore said.
Those include the park's new band shell and pavilion. The band shell will host concerts and live events, while the pavilion is designed for community picnics and private events.
Also under construction is the concession stand. Walls have been poured and the base of the building is visible, and the electrical piping and conduit are being installed.
"It's exciting to see where everything's going to be, the foundation and the sod going in," Wheeling Park District board President Keith Pecka said while surveying the construction recently.
Pecka also is excited about how much relief the park's flood prevention system will give to the community.
"Hopefully everybody benefits from this, and all of the houses and people will be spared from the things they've gone through over the years," he said.