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Municipalities along Fox River talk about possible removal of dams

As Batavia’s century-old dam continues to deteriorate, Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke believes the city must soon take action on what to do with the dam.

Schielke is concerned about the effect removing the dam – located near the Batavia Riverwalk in downtown Batavia – will have on the nearby Depot Pond.

“The No. 1 thing I will certainly be working for is to take the necessary steps to secure the presence and the ongoing feature of the Depot Pond in downtown Batavia,” Schielke said. “It’s one of the crown jewels of Batavia, and I think we need to do what we need to do to protect that. And I think that certainly can be done without the dam there.”

Officials from across the region are discussing what to do with the dams in their respective communities. Representatives from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources spoke to local officials during a Metro West Council of Government meeting on Sept. 25 about the state’s efforts to remove dams to improve water quality, aquatic habitat and recreational safety.

Schielke said the decision on what to do with the Batavia dam needs to be made sooner rather than later, before more of the dam washes away on its own.

“And that will be a bigger problem because then suddenly we’ll have this big breach in the dam that will immediately drain the Depot Pond and we’ll have a big mud slab laying there and there will be nobody happy about that,” Schielke said.

Batavia residents, in an advisory referendum several years ago, voted by a 2-1 margin to keep the dam. Batavia Administrator Bill McGrath has said state officials will not come and take a dam down if the community doesn’t want them to take it down.

Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns said the city of Geneva invited the IDNR to speak at the Metro West meeting to renew discussions on what should happen to the dams along the Fox River. In April, a 26-year-old Bloomington man drowned after his two-person kayak fell over a dam in Geneva.

The man had became caught in the boil in front of the dam, Geneva fire officials had said. But Burns said the issue is larger than just safety.

“It’s really about our constant focus and discussion about how we can make the shores of the Fox River an economic engine,” Burns said. “To do so, we have to ensure that the waterway itself is something that can be utilized in a safe manner. There’s evidence that exists that removing dams is a wholesale benefit.”

Burns said there is a program under the IDNR to remove dams and that area municipalities should examine the program to possibly take advantage of the resources available to them. He estimated that removing the Geneva dam could cost upward of $2 million.

As a result of the Sept. 25 meeting, area mayors have formed a group to discuss and review opportunities for the dams along the Fox River. Burns said he believes the communities must work cooperatively on the issue.

“Because if one community chooses, let’s say, option A, whether or not that has an impact on communities downstream or upstream needs to be investigated certainly,” Burns said. “And I think that it is in everybody’s best interests to move forward in a collaborative way so that the entire Fox River can benefit environmentally while all those communities up and down the Fox River can benefit economically and recreationally.”

St. Charles officials also are looking at the city’s dam as part of the Active River Project. That project aims to enhance recreation and economic opportunities on the Fox River while also improving water quality. The city of St. Charles, the St. Charles Park District and the River Corridor Foundation of St. Charles are working on the project.

“I think we as an organization like the fact that we have a pool of water upstream from the dam,” St. Charles City Administrator Mark Koenen said. “It provides recreation for boating and water skiing and all of that sort of thing. But there are probably ways to maintain that pool of water without having the dam.”

Koenen said the St. Charles dam is in reasonably good condition.

“I know that it has been inspected in the last five years or something,” he said. “There was no immediate concern about its structure. So, we’re in a little different position than some of our neighboring communities.”

North Aurora Village President Dale Berman said he believes removing the dam in North Aurora would improve safety. A teenager drowned trying to go over the North Aurora dam in the 1990s.

“It is more of an attractive nuisance then anything else, I guess,” Berman said. “But the state is going to wait and see what each of the communities want to do.”

At the same time, he said the village in the past few years has been working to beautify the village’s riverfront. A group known as the North Aurora River District Alliance in 2012 completed a project to build an interactive stream along the village’s riverfront.

“Obviously whatever happens, with or without the dam, we want to make the riverfront more important to us,” Berman said. “We want to make it a positive thing. The riverfront is an important part of the village.”

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