Drowning brings back Batavia dam questions
What should we do with it, and is money there for it, leaders ask
About 40 years ago, volunteer firefighter Jeff Schielke helped rescue a kayaker who had inadvertently gone over the north Batavia dam.
Even back then, the lowhead dam had outlived its purpose. It was built in 1911 to provide electricity to a windmill factory. And a big chunk had washed away, necessitating a repair.
Schielke became mayor in 1981. And during his 33 years in that office, two people have died in dam-related drownings, he said.
So when it comes to renewed discussion of what to do about the dam, his position is clear:
"I'm going to be on the side of saying that dam should come out," Schielke said.
Batavia aldermen are wading back into the issue after an eight-year silence.
The city council last week directed the city administrator to start planning discussions, including possibly forming a residents' committee, on the topic.
They did so at the request of Alderman Dan Chanzit. He said that after meeting with state officials last month, he believes the state has money again to do something with the dam.
Chanzit stressed, however, state officials want to take up the question only if Batavia officials are unified on a solution.
Such unity was difficult to come by 10 years ago.
From 2000 to 2006, city officials, park district officials and residents disagreed over whether to remove the dam and replace it with another full-height, run-of-the-river dam; remove it; remove it and build a rock ramp; or just reduce the height of the dam.
In July 2002 the council voted to have it removed, but the park board voted to keep it. In August 2002 the state decided to remove it and put in boulders to make a riffle that would help keep sediment from flowing into Depot Pond.
In a 2003 advisory referendum residents said they wanted to keep the dam.
There were discussions in 2004 about replacing it with a full-width, white-water-rapid device. Later that year, the city council and the park board voted for removal, with installation of jetties to protect the western bank, and the riffle.
But in 2006, the state decided on removal, with no jetties or riffle. And the money that had been appropriated for fixing dams in Batavia and Yorkville was spent instead on the reconfiguration of the Glen Palmer Dam in Yorkville, including establishing a white-water course, a stepped dam and a fish ladder.
Pro- and anti-dam advocates argued about whether the Batavia dam hurt the health of the river; whether removal would increase the fish species; whether the wide flats that would be revealed when the river narrowed would require a lot of maintenance, be damaged by flooding and harbor mosquitoes; and whether it was important to keep the river deep enough to allow motorized pleasure watercraft to use it.
The state favors removal of lowhead dams because of environmental and safety concerns, according to a 2007 report. The dam's design creates a hydraulic roller, or boil, at the base, in which items and people become trapped. On April 19, a man died in the boil at the dam in Geneva, another lowhead dam.
Let it go?
Batavia officials worry about what will happen if nothing is done. If a large portion were to suddenly crumble, downstream Depot Pond wouldn't be much of a pond anymore. "We're going to be sitting there with a big mudhole," Schielke said.
Depot Pond would drain into the river. Keeping the pond's current water level would require pumping river water in.
When the south Batavia dam was removed in 2005, water levels in that stretch of the river dropped. Nearby Harold Hall Quarry Beach, which is higher than the river, began losing water through its cracks, and the park district eventually ended up having to fill those cracks and install a new liner to keep water in.
"The Depot Pond is what makes us a contender, especially for stabilization purposes," Chanzit said in an email interview. "I think the Yorkville project is closer to what Batavia needs because it meets all the factions in the middle. Have you seen what they did? It's really quite amazing."
Schielke said he thinks a causeway should be built from the Riverwalk to Duck Island, and then from Duck Island to the Fabyan Parkway bridge. Doing so would retain a waterfront for residential properties on the west bank, he said, and it would be a good recreational amenity. He said it would provide a bigger area from which people could fish.
Depot Pond would still need a pump to maintain its water levels.
"At the end of the day it is going to require somebody to come up with a couple of million dollars," Schielke said.
The state had not set aside any money for removing the Batavia dam, said Chris Young, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
"They (the Batavia and Geneva dams) are not on any schedule for removal," Young said.
However, "we are always willing to continue the conversation (with local officials)," Young said.
The state has finished work on five of 16 projects in Gov. Pat Quinn's 2012 "Illinois Dam Removal Initiative." Eight of the projects concern the Des Plaines River through Cook County.
Of course, the makeup of the council and park board have changed drastically since the votes a decade ago. Only the mayor and three aldermen remain, and one parks commissioner.
Chanzit said a residents committee should be formed to come up with a recommendation, and that the matter should again be put to a vote in an advisory referendum.
"It's a good idea to engage the public in a discussion," he said.