What does the future hold for the Fox River and the communities such as St. Charles that rely on it for identity and economic activity?
Thanks to passionate protectors of the Fox River, the river has attracted eagles, herons, egrets, beavers, minks and more fish, validating the need for environmental stewardship. However, the river has a multitude of issues that require action. Consider the summer algae blooms, massive number of water lilies along the shoreline, the safety hazards that each of the river’s nine dams create and the deteriorating infrastructure such as the river wall in St. Charles or the almost totally breached Batavia dam.
Recent meetings and a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report outline the analysis and recommendations for removing nine dams on the Fox River. The Corps has appropriately concluded that the river is no longer an energy resource for industrial purposes. Yet, the dams have evolved to support economic activity such as the recreational powerhouse of the Chain O’ Lakes, the paddle wheel boats in St. Charles and riverboat gambling. The Aurora and Elgin dams play key roles in maintaining the water pools that provide drinking water for those communities.
Also, communities throughout the country have discovered that downtown riverfronts can provide a strong stimulus for economic development, as well as create a new identity and new opportunities for a community. Consider the recently revitalized Chicago Riverwalk or Confluence Park in downtown Denver, where the transformation of an old warehouse area into a dining, residential and entertainment district has reenergized the entire city. Many cities including Boise, Idaho; Bend, Oregon; Greenville, South Carolina; Columbus, Georgia; Reno, Nevada; and Charles City, Iowa, have invested in riverfront reengineering projects that have paid similar returns to their local economies.
Ten years ago, St. Charles community leaders had the vision and foresight to initiate a task force based on the Corps report to identify the issues and opportunities that the St. Charles dam presents. The possibility of major changes involving the Fox River have led to valid concerns about property values and diminished recreational opportunities, power boating in particular. Fortunately, a plan in St. Charles addresses these concerns, as well as many of the goals in the Corps report.
The plan, known as the St. Charles Active River Project and developed in 2014, is supported by engineering studies that state there are viable solutions for holding the river’s current water level north of the Union Pacific railroad trestle and returning the river to its natural channel south of the trestle. The studies also address fish migration, safety and recreational activities.
The Active River Project also would create new shoreline property that could accommodate new riverfront trails and activities, while also improving fish and mussel migration. The project also has the potential to improve traffic on Main Street and pedestrian safety with the construction of multiuse paths under the road at both ends of the Main Street bridge, which would enhance north-south connectivity in the downtown area. The project would improve safety on the river by eliminating the boil at the bottom of the St. Charles dam, create new recreational opportunities in a highly visible stretch of the river and provide significant new economic development opportunities for the entire community.
The Corps and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources have offered strong economic incentives for communities to remove their current dams. Communities must state their intentions to either keep or remove their current dams by April.
The River Corridor Foundation, of which I am a board member, facilitated a community town hall last year where Scott Shipley, a world leader in river engineering, discussed alternative methods for addressing dam issues and opportunities that are similar to what St. Charles faces.
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I believe that the potential for raising the necessary funding to implement the Active River Project’s reengineering ideas has never been stronger. The Fox River recently was designated the Fabulous Fox Water Trail as part of the National Trails System, a title that carries government funding. The IDNR has also committed funding to cities for reengineering efforts that would remove the IDNR’s role in maintaining and owning river infrastructure such as the St. Charles dam. There may also be funding available for the Active River Project through the federal INVEST in America Act.
The city of St. Charles commissioned a study in 2016 that concluded the implementation of a plan such as the river project would have a positive rate of return by increasing downtown property values and subsequent property tax receipts. Downtown property owners would benefit from a substantial decrease in the designated flood plain area along the river and associated insurance costs.
I encourage the entire St. Charles community to listen to Shipley’s presentation at www.stcrivercorridor.org and learn what alternatives might be available to leverage our beautiful Fox River and enhance our entire community.
I support the removal of the current St. Charles dam in conjunction with the implementation of the Active River Project and believe that as members of the community understand this opportunity, they will support this direction as well.
The Active River Project is a viable plan that would fulfill the objectives of the entire community as well as providing significant progress in achieving the Corps’ goals.
John Rabchuk is a board member of the River Corridor Foundation of St. Charles, which supports and advocates for projects that will enhance the downtown riverfront environment.