Batavia grapples with dam removal options

City, park district reaffirm commitment to preserving pond

BATAVIA – Taxpayers in Batavia would be on the hook for at least $3.5 million for an engineering project to remove the Challenge Dam and to ensure the preservation of Depot Pond, according to a consultant’s report.

Naperville-based Hitchcock Design Group was commissioned by the Batavia City Council and the Batavia Park Board to study the Fox River corridor and develop an action plan to improve the shoreline.

Central to the planning is what to do about the crumbling dam and how to maintain water levels in the pond, which attracts visitors every day to the Batavia Riverwalk.

At a joint meeting of city aldermen and park district trustees on July 13, Hitchcock representatives outlined several options.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources may be expected to cover the estimated $3 million to remove the dam, the design team reported.

However, other costs associated with the project, ranging from $3.5 million to upwards of $10 million, depending on which option is selected, would have to be borne by the city, the park district or both.

Well over a century old, the dam extends from the tip of the peninsula north of Batavia City Hall across the main river channel to the east bank at the Challenge Building.

On the west side of the peninsula is Depot Pond, presenting a scenic view for visitors to the Batavia Riverwalk, which is the top destination for users of park facilities in the community.

Water gushes through fissures in the dam. When river levels are low the water pours around breaks in the structure, particularly next to the east bank.

The dam’s continued decay threatens to reduce the water depths in the pond and upstream. The pool of water that is created by the dam extends north into the Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva.

Hitchcock’s Lacey Lawrence outlined several alternatives for removing the dam and keeping the pond intact.

Some of the more expensive options involve replacing the dam with a series of weirs that would maintain water levels upstream and in the pond, while gradually stepping down the river flow until reaching the existing levels below the current site of the dam.

Another option includes removing the dam while constructing a berm from the tip of the peninsula that would curve to the west bank of the river, enclosing the pond.

However, this option, while less expensive, would result in a considerably narrower river from the site of the dam all the way north to the forest preserve.

About 30 residents, most of them with homes lining the west bank of the pond and the main river channel, attended the meeting. They burst into applause when Mayor Jeff Schielke said that preservation of the pond is an overarching goal.

“Whatever we do we have to save the pond,” Schielke said. “The Depot Pond is here to stay…the pond is a legacy.”

The mayor also indicated his support for removing the dam.

“I’m afraid of it,” Schielke said. “It’s a danger.”

The IDNR agrees and has a policy of removing low-head dams on rivers in the state wherever possible.

Alderman Mark Uher, whose 5th Ward includes the west bank homes of the residents in attendance, expressed concern at the prospect of reducing the river’s width.

Uher said the river is now about 600 feet wide north of the dam, but would be narrowed to about 300 or 400 feet, resulting in a new shoreline that will require plantings and other treatments.

“That’s hugely impactful,” Uher said.

Enclosing the pond would require the installation of a pumping system in order to maintain the water level in the pond and to aerate the water and prevent it from becoming stagnant.

This prompted a series of questions from park board member John Tilmon, for which the consulting team had few answers.

“I need to know how these pumps work,” Tilmon said, concerned that the pumps might be noisy. “We have no idea for the operating cost. That’s really concerning to me.”

Tilmon also worried about options that include dredging the pond and the river and using the soil to create a new shoreline park.

“We don’t know the quality of the dirt,” Tilmon said.

Park board President Pat Callahan said Hitchcock needs to provide the city and park district with more specific dollar amounts for the costs involved.

Second Ward Alderman Alan Wolff said the city and park district should settle on an option before presenting it to the community.

There were plans to hold a public open house on the project sometime next month, but aldermen and park trustees decided to hold off until they have more information from Hitchcock.

“Let’s give the design team enough time,” Callahan said.

The residents attending the meeting said they bought their homes for the spectacular view of the river and pond.

“Our concern is that we are going to lose a beautiful river,” said Larry Nybo, whose west bank townhouse backs up to the shoreline.

“Keep it the way it is,” Nybo said.

Marilyn Weiher, another west bank resident, said alterations to the river or the pond would have major implications for the community at-large.

“The economy of the downtown is tied to this,” Weiher said, noting that the pond attracts visitors who then shop and dine at Batavia businesses.