Lakes, rivers also seeing problems because of heat and drought

The same severe drought and scotching heat that has turned grass into straw and is killing your flowers is also playing havoc with bodies of water.

That’s particularly true in Lake County, which features numerous inland lakes and the Fox River and Chain O’ Lakes, both major recreational waterways that attract boaters and fishermen from throughout the region.

There, water levels that are lower than in normal years are affecting wildlife, recreation and business, officials said.

“There are a lot of potential problems that could take place if it doesn’t rain soon,” said Rita Lee, a hydraulic engineer from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “Basically, we need rain. Without rain, things aren’t going to get any better.”

The lack of rain in Wisconsin and Illinois is causing the Fox and the Chain to send more water downstream than they take in, leading to lakes and rivers becoming more and more shallow.

There are spots on the Fox River, such as one near South Elgin, where the water is only a few inches deep. The Chain is about six inches shallower than it would be during an average summer, officials said.

“The term ‘dangerous’ depends on your perspective, but it could hurt water supplies for communities like Elgin and Aurora that rely on the Fox River,” Lee said.

John Palmeiri, lockmaster at the Stratton Lock and Dam in McHenry, said the Fox River water levels in New Munster, Wis., are down, too.

“They are more than two feet down in Wisconsin, so the water flowing in here isn’t enough to keep water levels up on the Chain or Fox River,” Palmeiri said.

Lee said the current flow of water from Wisconsin is only 80 cubic feet per second, a trickle compared to the normal flow of 376 cubic feet per second the Fox River averages in the summer. Meanwhile, the Stratton Lock and Dam and the Algonquin Dam is sending out water at 99 cubic feet per second.

The Des Plaines River in Gurnee is sending water downstream at a rate of 10 cubic feet per second, far lower than its normal 70 cubic feet per second.

The National Weather Service has said northern Illinois is in a severe drought, with area precipitation 4½ inches below the normal amount of rainfall expected at this time of the year.

Meteorologists said 9 to 12 inches of rain is needed at this point to bring the area back to normal.

Wildlife is suffering from the heat and dry weather, and as water and oxygen levels plummet, many fish are struggling to survive. Tim Schweizer, spokesman for the IDNR, said there have been more fish kills reported this year than in most years.

Frank Jakubicek, natural resources department fisheries biologist for Lake and Cook counties, said mostly bigger fish have been affected so far, while smaller fish seem to be surviving.

“Fish are more happy with floods than no water,” Jakubicek added.

Another threat the fish face is the potential for algae blooms. The warm water is an “incubator for many things,” said Michael Adams, senior biologist at the Lake County Health Department, and can cause increased growth of algae, which adds to oxygen depletion.

It’s not just the animals that are having a hard time with this weather. Rob Hardman, owner of Blarney Island on Grass Lake near Antioch, said while the lack of rainy days may seem good for business, high heat and higher humidity has the opposite affect.

“When you start getting the heat index in the 100s, people just avoid being outside,” Hardman said. “We had customers and employees passing out because the heat was too much. People don’t want to be outside drinking when it’s that hot.”

In contrast, though, some marina owners on the Chain are reporting a good year due to more boat repairs.

Randy Drozd, the service manager of Five Star Boat Center on Pistakee Lake in Fox Lake, said the lower water has led to boats running aground.

“The waterway seems to be busier than last year, but that makes sense because who wouldn’t want to be on the water on a 95-degree day,” Drozd said. “But business is up here because of damaged props and other low-water issues. There have been a lot of complaints that the water has been low and people are bottoming out.”

For Ron Barker, executive director of the Fox Waterway Agency, his message is as it’s always been: “Boat at your own risk.”

“Even in normal water levels, the captain is always responsible for his vessel,” Barker said. “We’re letting people know to be more vigilant and keep a close watch on their depth finders.”

While he said crews have been actively dredging and cleaning out sediments in the lakes and rivers, there is not much else they can do.

Despite all the negatives to the excessive heat and dry weather, it isn’t all bad news.

The lack of rain has resulted in less water pollution due to decreased runoff and fewer beach closings for the season, Adams said.

“The positive thing about the dry weather is we don’t have a lot of things washing into the lakes, which sometimes can happen if we have really wet weather,” he said.

There have been no flood-related boating restrictions issued on the Fox River and Chain during the summer boating season.

One other plus comes with a price: fewer mosquitoes. While floodwater mosquitoes aren’t hatching much right now, Adams said, the public should be reminded not to let down their guard. The mosquitoes that thrive most in the hot and dry weather are those that carry the West Nile virus.

The Lake County Health Department reported the first cases of West Nile in mosquitoes this year on Tuesday after a July 6 sample mosquito batch from Mundelein tested positive.

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  An increase of algae growth is being seen on the Chain O’ Lakes near Antioch. The warm water is an “incubator for many things,” said Michael Adams, senior biologist at the Lake County Health Department, and algae adds to oxygen depletion. Paul Valade/
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