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 affected by past and future flooding and stormwater policies.
This series is being made available to our readers for free. Please consider subscribing to help us continue the work we do on behalf of the community.
This project was made possible in part through a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
In spring 2013, flooding along the Illinois River hit record levels.
The river rose higher and higher, water flowed over the Marseilles Dam, and barges slammed into the levee, causing a breach and the evacuation of hundreds of residents of the city just shy of 5,000 people.
However, nearby Ottawa, which sits just west of Marseilles also on the Illinois River, saw minimal damage, getting the attention of leaders in the area.
To reduce future flood losses in other areas, a flood coalition headed by Ottawa flooding officials was created. Called the Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance, it paved the way for a later coalition created in 2019 to mitigate flooding in communities along the Fox River, including in McHenry County.
Called the Fox River Flood Commission, this group was made up of representatives from up and down the Illinois stretch of the Fox River. It was tasked with trying to solve the flooding problems that have dogged businesses and homeowners along the river.
The Fox River Flood Commission met five times in 2019, leading to discussions between counties on different flood control shortfalls in the watershed, flood mitigation alternatives and the long-term benefits of a coalition.
Eventually, this led to a vote by the commission to develop a future coalition to solve flooding issues.
Since then, no formal meetings of another coalition have taken place, but Fox Waterway Agency Executive Director Joe Keller said a lot of discussions have occurred with individual stakeholders over the past year about creating one.
Now that the April 6 municipal elections are over, Keller said, they know which elected officials want to be part of the coalition. The new coalition will try to begin convening as a group, he said.
“We’re looking forward to furthering progress this year on that,” Keller said.
‘Flood school’ and planning ahead
Mike Sutfin, the now-retired flood plain manager from Ottawa, said after record floods in 2007 and 2008, he worked with the city to create a flood plan, which laid out more stringent standards for land use within the flood plan.
The city also started buying properties in flood plains with the help of federal funding. As Sutfin put it, they “knocked down ... lots and lots and lots of buildings.”
When state Sen. Sue Rezin, whose district includes where the Illinois River meets the Fox River, toured the area after the 2013 flood, she noticed every community had significant damage – except Ottawa. All the town of about 19,000 lost in 2013 was a couple of picnic tables, Sutfin said.
Rezin reached out to Sutfin and asked him to share his knowledge with others in her district.
This ended in the creation of the Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance, a coalition of communities along the flood plain with the common goal of flooding mitigation.
For its first meeting, Sutfin brought in flooding experts from various areas to speak, and they started meeting quarterly.
Rezin described the first meeting as a “flood school” on what to do during a flood event. Sutfin also provided information on how to build or construct a flood-fighting plan.
“This is the first model ever in the state where a legislator is bringing all of the stakeholders together dealing with flood mitigation in her district and providing them with the tools to be successful against flooding in the future,” Rezin said.
The coalition helped unite the 25-plus certified flood managers in Rezin’s district.
“It’s important because when we are anticipating a flood disaster, these experts are already communicating. They’re reading, they’re talking with the National Weather Service about what to expect,” Rezin said. “They’re communicating, and they’re putting resources into place before the flood happens.”
Rezin said the state, and especially the federal government, has the funds to help with flooding.
“They’re looking for projects and communities that are proactively planning to prevent flooding before it happens,” Rezin said. “By participating in this coalition, it elevates us when communities, as a member of our coalition, then go and apply for grants.”
The coalition 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, Sutfin said.
Sutfin said he can be the best flood plain manager in the world, but that wouldn’t matter if people up and downstream from him are filling in the flood plains with development.
At the first meeting of the Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance, Sutfin and Rezin emphasized that point.
Eventually, the Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance would become recognized nationally and statewide.
‘This was a problem that wasn’t going to go away’
The Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance provided the inspiration for the 2019 Fox River Flood Commission.
Former state Sen. Karen McConnaughay introduced a bill to create the commission in 2018, and between February and December 2019, five meetings were held, according to the commission’s final report.
McConnaughay said after dealing with a lot of flooding in Kane County as County Board chairwoman over an eight-year period, she wanted to start working with other counties experiencing the same thing.
“I knew this was a problem that wasn’t going to go away, and if we’re really going to get our arms around it and proactively deal with it instead of constantly reacting to it, then we needed to pull together resources across all the counties and include the state of Illinois,” she said.
The commission talked about past and current approaches to flooding and ways communities can work together in the future.
“It was a good starting point,” McConnaughay said. “Now we need to find the leadership that will take that to the next level.”
The 2019 Fox River Flooding Commission had 28 members.
A smaller group would allow more detailed discussions, said County Board member Carolyn Schofield, who was part of the Fox River Flood Commission
“This is a very large group that the state had appointed,” she said.
Schofield said a smaller group could make be task-driven as opposed to conceptual.
Another member of the commission from Lake County, County Board member Linda Pedersen, said one of the biggest things the commission found was that there’s a need to concentrate on educating residents about some of the more complex issues regarding flooding.
Part of what this initiative did was consolidate information in a way that made projects eligible for grant funding, said Sharon Osterby, a water resource professional for the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission. A lot of the information it uses in grant funding applications was a direct result of the flooding commission effort, she said.
The Fox River Flood Commission Report identified some areas that are particularly high risk and those that need prioritization in addressing, Osterby said.
“They chose an area to target for collecting that structure-specific information,” Osterby said. “That information can then be used by both McHenry County and Lake County for making grant applications for mitigation projects.”
The Lake County Stormwater Management Commission is working with McHenry County and the Illinois State Water Survey to obtain grant funding to start completing risk assessments in the river’s watershed area. The purpose of these risk assessments, Osterby said, is to collect the data needed when applying for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for flood mitigation.
Another former commission member from Lake County, Judy Martini, said the commission brought up possibly doing some projects to stop sedimentation from entering the system.
But this takes money, she said.
“Funding is a huge issue. The biggest issue, I think, [is] where do you get the money?” said Martini, who represents the Fox Lake, Ingleside, Lakemoor and Volo area on the Lake County Board. “We think we know the solutions to the problems, but it’s the money.”
Schofield said the lack of predictability around flooding can be another barrier to completing cohesive flood mitigation and planning.
When flooding events are occurring, they are on everyone’s radar, Schofield said. 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.”
These problems need future solutions, Schofield said.
“Even though it may not be a problem right at this moment, you need to think ahead,” she said.
What happens now?
Some projects have continued in McHenry County since the commission submitted its final report, including buying properties in flood plain areas, but the overall purpose of the commission – to alleviate the flooding along the river – still is necessary, Schofield said.
Joanna Colletti, McHenry County’s water resources manager who is a member of the 2019 commission, said the county behind the scenes still is promoting flood insurance and working on mitigation efforts through flood plain buyouts.
“[The commission] reinforced what we were doing and then gave a better direction as to how to tailor what we’re doing,” Colletti said.
The Lake County Stormwater Management Commission submitted its own applications to FEMA each of the past two years. Typically, results of those applications are announced by June. It wasn’t able to obtain funding last year on its first attempt, but staff is hopeful for this year.
“If we’re not awarded that funding, we’re diligent in reapplying and reapplying, so that would be something we would continue to carry forward,” Osterby said. “We’re fairly confident. We did get positive feedback on the application itself.”
Money has been earmarked for some projects at the state level, Osterby said, especially as Illinois continues working on infrastructure.
Traditionally, when people think of infrastructure improvements, they think of roads and bridges, Osterby said, but it also can include stormwater infrastructure.
“We have projects that are queued up and ready to go throughout the county, and those projects were submitted to the state for their approval,” Osterby said. “We’re really hoping that money starts to flow.”
Although state Sen. Craig Wilcox, R-McHenry, is hopeful other Illinois officials will agree the Fox River and Chain O’ Lakes are eligible to receive funding for flood control upgrades through motor fuel tax dollars – which normally are reserved for road maintenance – he said he’s confident the waterway would qualify as an asset that could be improved under President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion-plus spending proposal.
Biden unveiled this plan to reengineer the nation’s infrastructure in what he billed as “a once-in-a-generation investment in America” at the tail-end of last month, according to The Associated Press.
“We’re five or more years into this building awareness. That’s acknowledgment that we’re starting to see the ratcheting up of involvement to see if we can get to a solution,” Wilcox said of the 2019 Fox River Flood Commission Report.
And now a new coalition is looking to begin meeting again, Keller said. He expects having a discussion group in the next few weeks, although a date has not yet been determined.
Different entities along the Fox River that are looking to be part of the future coalition stretch from Algonquin through Cary, Barrington Hills, Fox Lake, Johnsburg and McHenry.
Stormwater managers in Lake, McHenry and Kane counties; elected officials; and the National Weather Service are represented in future coalition discussions as well, Keller said.
Keller expects the number of members in the new coalition to be between eight and 12.
“It’s not so much the quantity as it is the passion in which folks are going to be engaged in wanting to facilitate and help,” he said.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the ability to gather, and many state and local entities made adjustments when it came to their own operations. But that didn’t stop the Fox Waterway Agency from starting individual discussions with different people, Keller said.
“The agency ... is always focused on the waterway, trying ways to try to mitigate flooding, ways to remove additional sediments out of the system,” Keller said. “That is our full-time job.”
• Northwest Herald reporter Sam Lounsberry contributed to this report.