Flooding on the Fox: Fox Waterway Agency positioned to start catching up on dredging after insufficient pace on flood mitigation work

New $1.2 million processing facility could add revenue to Fox Waterway Agency budget that officials say is underfunded

Construction vehicles shuffle around stone as the Fox Waterways Agency builds their Wall Street location on Tuesday, April 13, 2021 in Lake Villa.

This story is part of a Northwest Herald series about how local, state and federal officials are trying to mitigate flooding in the Fox River watershed and how northern Illinois residents have been and could be impacted by past and future flooding and stormwater policies.

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For perhaps the first time in its existence, the Fox Waterway Agency is in position over the upcoming months to remove more sediment runoff accumulating in the Fox River and Chain O’Lakes than the amount that goes into the water every year, its executive director said.

Every bit of dirt, sand and silt headed from land into the Fox and Chain via tributaries or straight from the shore raises the bottom of the hydrological system, decreasing its capacity to hold water and thus exacerbating the risk of flooding and jeopardizing recreation.

In recent years, the Fox Waterway Agency removed about 100,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Chain and the stretch of the Fox River through McHenry and Lake counties it is dedicated to maintaining and enhancing for boating and recreation.

Fox Waterway Agency Executive Director Joe Keller shows some of the property and improvements made to their Wall Street location on Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Lake Villa.

About the same amount of sediment goes into the system each year, said Joe Keller, the Fox Waterway Agency’s executive director since 2015.

But a single flooding event can bring as much 100,000 cubic yards into the system all at once, Keller said, adding that some estimates show that much sediment entered it just during the flooding in the summer of 2017.

Before this year, the Fox Waterway Agency had almost no chance of keeping pace with the amount of dredging required to keep lakes and the river from becoming shallower; to prevent flooding from getting worse; and to stop sediment, including nutrient-rich soils, from washing down the watershed, into the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, where it can cause algal blooms that kill off marine life.

In fact, the agency has decades of dredging to make up, especially as climate change is expected to result in more extreme rain events in the Midwest in coming years that could accelerate the amount of soil and sediment getting deposited into the Fox and Chain, Keller said.

The problem is not a new one.

“Sedimentation and nutrient overloading have occurred in the lake system since the first dam was built [in] 1907 in McHenry to raise water levels in the lake system,” according to a 2000 U.S. Geological Survey report.

So when the Fox Waterway Agency was established in the 1980s, it was already behind on the dredging work necessary to maintain the lake system and stave off future flood events, Keller said.

“We weren’t taking out 100,000 cubic yards per year back then, so we’re making up for at least the past 30 to 40 years. But all the years prior to that, there was no initiative, so cumulatively speaking, we have a long way to go, but at least we are in a position to do more now than we ever have been,” Keller said.

His optimism stems from the agency’s recent acquisition of a 15-acre area in Lake Villa off Wall Street, right near the heart of the Chain, where dredged sediment can be processed and turned back into topsoil to be used on farms, gardens and yards for growing.

Fox Waterway Agency Executive Director Joe Keller crumbles some nutrient-rich sediment in his hands at the agency's Cooper Farm Sediment Dewatering Facility on Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Antioch.

The procedure involves putting the material through a new, $275,000 trommel pulverizer machine that replaced decades-old equipment, upping the agency’s efficiency.

But it is the size and location of the land itself that will give the agency a boost in tackling the gargantuan task of removing excess buildup from the river and lakes.

Previously, the agency was able to use about 2 acres for processing this material in a location twice as far from the Chain, resulting in higher costs to transport the material. Plus, the agency was simply giving away the soil once it was ready to be used for growing again, and sometimes the agency would have to haul the ready soil to its final destination, costing it more money.

With the new processing facility’s larger scale and closer proximity to the Cooper’s Farm Dewatering Facility in Antioch, where dredged material is initially stored once pulled from the Chain, the agency expects to be able to sell the soil back to growers, generating revenue through its work instead of losing it.

Keller expects at least $130,000 to come in through the soil sales this year, double what the agency made last year by using the smaller, farther area for processing.

He anticipates that dollar figure will keep growing over the next few years, and with it, so will the agency’s capacity for dredging.

Keller thinks the agency could start doing twice as much sediment removal annually as a result of the Wall Street acquisition, which the agency paid just less than $400,000 for, Keller said. The former property owner Vulcan Materials claimed the remaining $800,000 on the $1.2 million cost as a tax-deductible donation to the agency.

Sailing instructor Cortney Kingsley, 17, of McHenry watches as students operate sailboats on Pistakee Lake. Kyle Grillot - kgrillot@shawmedia.com

The agency generated the cash it used in the purchase by selling a property in Island Lake that originally was meant to be developed as a sediment processing facility, but the project never came to fruition.

But the new processing site is not the only one needed to tackle the problem, which even at the faster pace Keller hopes the agency starts moving, will take years to make a dent in.

“This processing site right now is a significant processing site. But the ideal thing would be able to acquire strategic sites along the whole system, to be able to do this in other areas where there is big sediment,” Keller said.

While getting sediment out of the water is one way to combat local flooding, preventing it from going in is possible, too, through agricultural practices like converting unused fields into vegetative cover to place barriers in the path of sediment to waterways.

“Managing sediments from within the lakes without addressing the inflow sediment problem would not be a successful operation either,” according to a 2002 report prepared by the Illinois State Water Survey.

Local and state officials whose jurisdictions include the McHenry County stretches of the Fox and Chain O’Lakes have only so much control over implementing practices to prevent farm sediment runoff, since agricultural land use composes 48% of the Wisconsin reaches of the Fox River watershed, according to a 2014 Lake County Health Department Ecological Services report.

The Fox Waterway Agency dredges each year in the Fox River and Chain O' Lakes system to remove sediment deep enough for boats to navigate.

The Wisconsin portion of the watershed that drains into the Fox and the Chain is about 2.5 times larger than the portion of the watershed in Illinois, according to the Lake County report.

“As far as the state of Illinois is concerned, almost all of the watershed of the Fox River upstream of the Chain of Lakes is in Wisconsin where implementation of best management practices cannot be done by the state of Illinois only,” according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources document. “Therefore, for the state of Illinois, the best alternative would be to manage the sediments within the lake. This will take a long time because the problem was created over a very long period. It also will take a long time before this excessive sedimentation problem is solved.”

Wisconsin officials have been trying to steer agricultural land managers toward methods that reduce erosion, with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission highlighting in planning documents a handful of state and federal grant programs available to farmers willing to adjust their techniques, like declining to till soil, to prevent more of it from disappearing into streams.

Boaters on the Fox River Friday, Sept. 2, 2016 observer the no wake zone south of the Stratton Lock and Dam near McHenry.

As Illinois’ focus among flood mitigation tactics in the Fox River watershed remains on dredging to clear stream channels of excess debris, more money for the work is needed, area officials said.

While the extra revenue from soil sales will help the Fox Waterway Agency, it won’t get the organization’s budget where it needs to be in order to have an impact flooding.

Keller said the agency’s annual budget of about $3 million – it had been about $2 million until the last few years, he said – is far below what it should be for a waterway system with the size and popularity among boaters of the Chain and the Fox.

With more than 25,000 boats on average registered annually to navigate the chain, plus more than 7,100 acres of water, 15 lakes and 45 miles of river, the Fox River and Chain O’Lakes is the most popular inland waterway in the country, according to Keller and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

A more standard annual budget figure for an agency like it would be about $10 million, Keller said.

State Sen. Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, agreed the agency is underfunded, but wasn’t ready to concur it should have a $10 million budget.

Wilcox said he has drafted, but not yet introduced, legislation that would allow a portion of the motor fuel tax generated in Lake and McHenry counties to be dedicated to the Fox Waterway Agency. He thinks the amount of taxes derived from watercraft and cars catering to boating should go back to the agency to help support its mission of maintaining and improving the waterway.

The hurdle for the legislation, which Wilcox thinks it can overcome, is that motor fuel taxes are supposed to be dedicated for maintaining roads. But Wilcox thinks using the funding for the waterway could be allowed because boats and vehicles towing them contribute to the fuel taxes raised locally, he said.

The sum raised for the agency would be “substantial compared to what Fox Waterway gets now,” said Wilcox, who declined to provide a specific dollar figure this week because the projections he’s seen are preliminary and could change as the legislation is ironed out.

Fox Waterway Agency Executive Director Joe Keller shows some of the property and improvements made to the Cooper Farm Sediment Dewatering Facility on Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Antioch.

Keller also has solicited the assistance of property owners along the Fox and the Chain to pitch in to flood mitigation by investing time and resources into restoring their shorelines to prevent sediment runoff.

Plus, experts have recommended more modeling of the bottom of lakes and rivers in the Fox Waterway Agency’s jurisdiction, which has started to get done and could help officials more precisely choose the most effective spots to dredge.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources last year completed a bathymetric survey, which maps the depths and shapes of underwater terrain, for a 6.5 mile stretch of the Fox River from the Stratton Dam near McHenry north to Pistakee Lake.

“This effort was conducted to collect elevation data for the river bottom to help understand the flow of the river and impediments that are causing flow resistance,” Illinois Department of Natural Resources Deputy Director Rachel Torbert said.

A follow-up survey is being planned to collect additional data from the bridges on the Fox River upstream of the dam as well as bridges in the Chain of Lakes, Torbert said.

In addition to dredging and soil recovery, the Fox Waterway Agency can help mitigate flooding by performing island restoration with dredged material, Keller said. The agency currently is looking into creating such islands with sediment removed from riverbeds and creek beds in areas in and near Johnsburg and Algonquin.

But all projects require funding.

Keller argues that with climate change having the potential to drastically increase flooding and cut down on the seasonal windows waterways are usable, now is the time for public officials and residents alike to commit to taking steps to reduce flooding risk and protect the ability to recreate in motorboats in the area.

Wilcox agreed the agency contributes more to the state’s economy and budget than it gets in return financially.

“I would like the state to be honest with the benefit the state sees from the recreation in the Chain, whether it’s sales tax, motor fuel tax, lodging, economic growth. Acknowledge how beneficial that is, and put the resources where they need to be to ensure we have that for a lengthy period of time,” Wilcox said.

Fox Waterway Agency Executive Director Joe Keller crumbles some nutrient-rich sediment in his hands at the Cooper Farm Sediment Dewatering Facility on Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Antioch.