Kane County residents divided on plans to remove Fox River dams

South Elgin Village Board Trustee Jim Breunlin took to the podium to express his objections to the removal of the Kimball Street Dam in Elgin at a meeting held by the US Army Corp of Engineers in the Heritage Ballroom of the Centre of Elgin on Sept. 19, 2023.

More than 100 Kane County residents attended the second of three dam removal meetings last week held by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. The meetings detailed their Fox River Habitat and Connectivity Study findings and fielded concerns from residents.

The Army Corps held the meeting Sept. 19 in the Heritage Ballroom of the Centre of Elgin after conducting the first meeting Sept. 18 in St. Charles. The third meeting was Sept. 20 at Waubonsee Community College in Aurora.

Army Corps officials said there were more than 300 people at the meeting in St. Charles.

Public comment was made on both sides of the issue, with some residents in favor of the dam removal and others starkly in opposition.

Over 100 Kane County residents attended the second of three Fox River dam removal meetings this week, held by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which detailed their Fox River Habitat and Connectivity Study findings and fielded concerns from residents at a meeting in the Heritage Ballroom of the Centre of Elgin on Sept. 19, 2023.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study is part of the Illinois River Basin Restoration Program that Congress approved in 2000. The study findings recommend removal of every Fox River dam in Kane County from the Carpentersville Dam to the Montgomery Dam.

Total project cost is estimated to be more than $14 million. Removal of the Kimball Street Dam in Elgin would cost $1,423,000. Elimination of the dam is being recommended to restore the river’s natural wildlife habitat and improve water quality.

The resulting lower water level is a major concern for many residents as the river could become inaccessible for water sports and larger boats. Several concerns were raised during public comment regarding the effect the water level change could have on property value, shoreline quality and water supply.

The meeting began with remarks from the Army Corps, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Fox River Study Group, followed by presentations from the city of Elgin Mayor and the Fox River Connectivity and Habitat Study. Public comment began after the presentations.

Col. Kenneth Rockwell of the Army Corps spoke first and began by saying the study and its findings are merely a report that will be presented to Congress and it ultimately will be up to locally elected leaders whether to act on the findings. Presentation slides can be found on the Army Corps website.

Rockwell said the purpose of the meetings was to gather impact statements from residents and provide citizens with a comprehensive view of the study’s findings and the details of the dam removal plan.

Over 100 Kane County residents attended the second of three Fox River dam removal meetings this week, held by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which detailed their Fox River Habitat and Connectivity Study findings and fielded concerns from residents at a meeting in the Heritage Ballroom of the Centre of Elgin on Sept. 19, 2023. Another public meeting will be held Sept. 20 at Waubonsee Community College at 18 S. River Street in Aurora.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources chief of engineering studies Wes Cattoor said the DNR is in full support of the study and its findings. He said its conclusions align with the DNR’s mission to protect the Fox River, and while many studies support dam removal, it may not be the best solution for every community.

Art Malm, a board member of the Fox River Study Group and Friends of the Fox River, told residents that removing the dams is the group’s top priority and the process would leave a beautiful shoreline.

“Every path toward correcting the Fox River impairments requires the removal of the dams,” Melm said.

Elgin public works director Mike Pubentz said the city is in a unique situation because, unlike the dams in other cities, Elgin draws 70% of its drinking water from the Fox River at the Kimball Street Dam.

Pubentz said Elgin’s three water wells will not supply enough water should the city lose its supply from the Fox River. He raised concerns that removing the dam would significantly lower the upstream pool and their water supply would be at risk during periods of low flow and droughts.

“While we support the creation of an improved natural habitat and river ecology, we as a city must be able to supply clean, safe drinking water to our public,” Pubentz said.

Elgin employed Stantec Consulting Services Inc. to perform a water study on how the city’s water supply would be affected by the dam removal. Stantec hydraulic engineer Wade Moore presented their findings.

Moore said river levels will drop, which could affect the flow of the city’s intake. He presented residents with several measures the city could take in the future should intake be affected.

Moore presented the following options and their estimated prices: Installing rock groins in the riverbed ($1.8 million), installing a new intake system ($4.4 million), installing a new pumping station ($18.2 million) and armoring the riverbed to prevent change in flow ($2 million to $6 million).

Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain spoke during the presentation, saying this has been a long time coming. He said each municipality has to have these discussions to show what is important to their city and especially in Elgin, where they rely on the river for their drinking water.

Army Corps fish biologist and restoration ecologist Frank Veraldi detailed the environmental benefits of removing the dams, which included wildlife restoration, water quality, affordability, flood mitigation and safety.

Veraldi said once the dams are removed, there will be no further operations or maintenance fees, so the $14,135,000 price of removal would give the municipalities “the best bang for their buck.”

Army Corps realty specialist Nicholas Laluzerne spoke briefly on the impact the dam removal would have on properties and said they could find no evidence in their studies that property value would be negatively affected. While he advised residents to talk to their local tax experts, he suggested that property values in Elgin may increase because of the river restoration the dam removal would provide.

Some residents, however, did not share the same sentiment. Elgin resident Marcia Rodriguez lives on the Fox River and is not in favor of the dam’s removal. She cited concerns of losing water supply for emergency services, losing recreation activity and decreasing property values leading to decreased tax revenue for the city.

“For us, this is more than a study,” Rodriguez said. “This is our home, this is our livelihood, and using verbiage like ‘bang for your buck’ is really offensive.”

Jim Breunlin is a South Elgin Village Board trustee but said he was speaking during public comment as a citizen who lives on the river and not on the village’s behalf. He said he disagreed with USCOE representatives’ claims that property value would not be affected.

Breunlin said the removal of the dam would cause the width of the river above the dam to decrease by 25% to 50% and the newly exposed shoreline would be a significant downgrade from the current riverbanks. He also said the history of industrial work along the river in Elgin has left toxic sediment in the mud in the riverbed that potentially will be hazardous once exposed.

“The mud exposed will be an ugly, stinky mess,” Breunlin said. “It will smell bad for two years and this will be a significant hit to my property value.”

While Army Corps representatives said the removal of the dams would reduce safety concerns, Breunlin argued that the increased water flow rate would only create a new safety risk.

Friends of the Fox board President Gary Swick spoke in favor of the dam removal, saying it is the most economic alternative to meet Illinois Environmental Protection Agency requirements. He said the dam is obsolete and cited the drowning hazard that has claimed several lives.

“Please learn more about the facts of dam removal,” Swick said. “It will not result in the disappearance of eagles, flooding or dry up. These are false scare tactics.”

In addition to the public comments made during the meetings, residents can submit comments and concerns by email to Fox-River-Study@usace.army.mil or by mail to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District, ATTN: Planning, 231 S. LaSalle St., Suite 1500, Chicago. The public comment period of the study will end Nov. 6.

The project’s next steps would be tentative approval of the feasibility report in January 2025, followed by project partnership agreements and construction planning. Depending on individual dam approval timelines, construction contracts are projected to be awarded in 2027, with the dam removals completed by 2030.