Our View: Work needs to continue on Fox River flooding

Don’t let the ball drop after the dissolution of the Fox River Flood Commission more than a year ago

Flooding along the Fox River and the Chain O’Lakes isn’t going away.

If anything, it’s likely going to get worse due to climate change and development upstream.

The Fox River at Algonquin, for example, saw five major flood events during the 2010s, a concerning number since that same point in the river flooded to that level just six times over the nine decades before that.

The Northwest Herald spent months looking into flooding issues, a project made possible through a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and the work that has and hasn’t happened to address it. A three-day series detailed the newspaper’s findings.

Among the efforts reported on was the Fox River Flood Commission, a collection of local officials from up and down the Illinois length of the Fox River.

The commission “was a good starting point” in addressing flooding issues, said former state Sen. Karen McConnaughay, who introduced the legislation that led to the commission’s creation.

Collaboration among local, state and federal officials is necessary to combat flooding issues anywhere, not just the Fox and the Chain O’Lakes. You can’t accomplish this through piecemeal efforts.

As the now retired flood plain manager from Ottawa put it, he can be the best flood plain manager in the world, but that doesn’t matter if people up and downstream from him are filling in the flood plains with development.

The work completed by the Fox River Flood Commission and the coalition that inspired it, Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance, doesn’t just keep riverfront communities on the same page. It gives them the opportunity to leverage their knowledge and numbers to obtain grant dollars and other funding to accomplish flood mitigation projects.

The federal government is “looking for projects and communities that are proactively planning to prevent flooding before it happens,” said state Sen. Sue Rezin, who led the creation of the Illinois River group. “By participating in this coalition, it elevates us when communities, as a member of our coalition, then go and apply for grants.”

The Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance led to millions of dollars in grants for area communities across Rezin’s district and helped ensure all the communities were on the same page, said Mike Sutfin, the now-retired flood plain manager from Ottawa.

The Fox River commission was just a starting point, and now more than a year has passed since it issued its final report.

Conversations about a follow-up group have been taking place, Fox Waterway Agency Executive Director Joe Keller said, and a group could begin meeting in the coming weeks.

It’s important that happens. It probably should have already started.

The COVID-19 pandemic limited gatherings, but with the group envisioned to be on the smaller size with perhaps eight to 12 members, those meetings could have already begun virtually.

The follow-up group needs to build on the work of its predecessor before momentum is lost. And one of the members this time should be a state legislator to ensure that someone is advocating for the money needed – for sediment dredging projects, for property buyouts – comes through.

Flooding is the type of issue that is on everyone’s radar when water is everywhere, McHenry County Board member Carolyn Schofield told the Northwest Herald. But when they aren’t, they tend to be forgotten.

“When it’s a problem, it’s a problem,” she said. “When it’s not, it’s not.”

The communities along the Fox River can’t afford for flooding to be forgotten until the next big flood.