Lake County lawmakers want to dissolve Fox Waterway Agency
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Two Lake County lawmakers want to abolish the agency that oversees the Chain O' Lakes and Fox River in what they say is an effort to reduce redundant government services.
Democrat state senators Terry Link of Waukegan and Julie Morrison of Deerfield are sponsoring a bill introduced in the senate Jan. 28 that, if approved, would dissolve the Fox Waterway Agency and send its assets to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"This is the only agency of its kind in the state of Illinois and it's redundant," Link said. "There are things we can do to limit the amount of local government in Illinois, and reducing redundant agencies like (the Fox Waterway Agency) is one way of doing it."
The proposal faces resistance from supporters of the Fox Lake-based agency who said the change could turn the Chain into a swamp and cripple communities that rely heavily on boater income.
In addition, high-ranking Illinois Department of Natural Resources officials said the state is not in a position to assume Fox Waterway Agency duties, including the cost of daily management and staffing of the waterway.
"We want to keep the Fox Waterway Agency," said Arlan Juhl, director of the IDNR's Office of Water Resources. "The agency performs tasks that we would have to do (if abolished), and we are not prepared to pick it up and go."
If the legislation is approved, Juhl said, it would take six months to a year for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to be in a position to completely assume Fox Waterway Agency operations.
The agency was created in 1983 to oversee the waterway made up of 15 lakes, 7,100 acres of water, 45 miles of river and countless marinas, restaurants and bars that cater to boaters. It is known as one of the busiest inland recreational waterways in the U.S.
The agency is charged with improving and maintaining the Chain and Fox River for recreation, environmental quality, flood control and to promote tourism. The waterway serves more than 21,000 boaters annually.
With a $3.1 million annual budget and 14 employees, its main effort in that mission is to keep the waterway navigable by removing silt, muck and debris that collects on lake and river bottoms.
That sediment is an ongoing problem for the Chain, as it is carried in the Fox River flow from Wisconsin, experts say.
The agency dredges about 100,000 cubic yards of sediment annually, Executive Director Ron Barker said. The work is mostly paid for through the sale of about $1.5 million in boat stickers each year, he added.
Had that dredging not been done since 1993, "people would be able to walk across Grass Lake," Barker said.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources does not have an "active dredging program" of state-supported waterways in Illinois, Juhl said. The department has done dredging as needed while working on other capital improvement projects, he added.
Sen. Pam Althoff, a Republican from McHenry, said the agency was created because residents believed the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was not able to keep up with dredging.
"The (Fox Waterway Agency) was put in place so someone would make sure the lakes and river do not become swamp land," Althoff said. "The IDNR doesn't have the resources to invest the time or energy to keep it navigable like the waterway (agency) is currently doing."
She said dissolving the agency would eventually reduce the number of boaters and lead to an economic downturn for McHenry, Fox Lake, Antioch, Lake Villa, Algonquin and other communities in Lake and McHenry counties.
"There will be significant, negative, unintended consequences if this somehow gains traction (with lawmakers)," Althoff said.
At stake, Fox Waterway Agency Chairman Wayne Blake said, is about 6 million in tourism dollars the Chain generates annually from boat sales, restaurants, taverns and marinas.
"(The agency) was established because our forefathers saw the tourism that could come from it if it was cared for correctly," Blake said.
However, Morrison said she promised voters in 2011 she would cut out redundancy in state agencies.
"I looked and couldn't find any other body of water that has a state-mandated agency oversee it like the Fox Waterway Agency does," she said. "The DNR does it in every other part of the state. My understanding is the IDNR can more than handle it and will do an excellent job."
She denied the death of her nephew, Tony Borcia, 10, of Libertyville, was a factor in her decision to co-sponsor the bill. Borcia was killed two years ago in an alcohol-related boating accident on Petite Lake.
In 2013, Morrison sponsored four bills designed to increase boater safety. A Senate committee hearing she hosted in August in Libertyville to review the legislation was attended by some 240 people.
One bill was signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in late July. It requires a boater in a crash that results in injury or death to submit to an alcohol test. Boaters who refuse or are over the legal threshold of 0.08 percent could have their driver's license suspended for six months.
The other proposals have not been approved by lawmakers.
Link participated in that committee hearing, but scoffs at the notion his bill is related to Borcia's death.
"I'll start picking (redundant agencies) off one at a time," he said. "You'll see that, before I'm no longer a senator, we will consolidate more agencies like this one."
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