Logjams, some caused naturally like this one in LaPorte County, and others by manmade structures, can block the flow of water on the Kankakee River, leading to erosion of banks and eventual flooding. Photo provided by Kankakee River Basin and Yellow River Basin Development Commission
Logjams, some caused naturally like this one in LaPorte County, and others by manmade structures, can block the flow of water on the Kankakee River, leading to erosion of banks and eventual flooding. Photo provided by Kankakee River Basin and Yellow River Basin Development Commission
La PORTE — Safety and predictability are the goals of the Kankakee River Basin and Yellow River Basin Development Commission, which is charged with managing one of Northwest Indiana’s unique natural resources.

“It’s our job to dedicate resources to the long term and root cause solutions, because if we don’t do that, we will never be able to manage this from an economic standpoint,” said Scott Pelath, executive director of the commission.

Pelath talked about the mission of the organization – to advance Northwest Indiana’s safety, economic prosperity and quality of natural resources – at Monday’s La Porte Rotary meeting.

“Those three things cannot be unraveled. Those are all of equal importance to us,” Pelath said.

The Kankakee River Basin includes portions of St. Joseph, La Porte, Starke, Marshall, Porter, Jasper, Lake and Newton counties. The basin also includes all of Kankakee and Iroquois counties in Illinois.

The commission has a nine-member panel – one member from each of the eight counties and a senior member of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. There are also two non-voting representatives from Illinois.

Their duties include stabilizing the rivers’ banks to contain water, reconstructing channels, acquiring land for flood storage, constructing levees, removing sediment from the channels and removing trees.

The projects on the Kankakee River are funded through an assessment on every property within the basin. The assessments are $7 per residential parcel, $1 per farm acre, $2 per undeveloped commercial acre, $50 per commercial parcel and $360 per industrial or utility parcel.

Pelath said La Porte County’s needs are a little different.

“They’re sort of in the middle. They need that water to pass on through,” he said, adding this means maintaining trees and reinforcing banks on the river.

At the same time, there are flood water storage opportunities in La Porte County.

“The neat part is most of those are in areas that are already public lands, they’re just not maximized for holding flood waters,” Pelath said.

The river extends 133 miles from a ditch in St. Joseph County to where the Kankakee meets the Des Plaines River in Illinois to become the Illinois River. The Yellow River is the major tributary in Indiana for the Kankakee River.

In La Porte County, Pelath said, most of the county is in the Kankakee River Basin. Everything north of the Indiana Toll Road drains to Lake Michigan, while everything south of the Toll Road drains to the Kankakee River, all the way to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

“There’s actually a continental divide that runs right between Michigan City and La Porte,” he said.

The basin in Indiana comprises 1.3 million acres – with 1.1 million of those being tillable farm ground.

“This is important to remember from an economic standpoint because our communities here in Indiana are still largely based upon that agricultural economy,” Pelath said.

The basin was once the second largest freshwater marsh in the United States.

“It was apparently a hunter’s paradise at one point. There were inns at the edges of the marsh that were purely there so people could come from other parts of the country and the continent to really hunt waterfowl and fish,” Pelath said.

Beginning in 1880 and ending in 1917, the marsh was drained.

“They did it using old steam dredge technology. They created the Kankakee River channel that exists today,” Pelath said.

The process involved straightening by cutting through the river’s meanders. This turned a 250-mile river into about a 75-mile river.

“The implications of what we face today are based on that straightening and deepening. The water runs more directly, it increases in velocity and that’s where we start to get some of our wholesale erosion and water quality issues,” Pelath said.

During the dredging 100 years ago, the sand was piled up on the banks.

“So, what you think are engineered levees along each side of the river are not, they’re just spoil piles. That’s the flood control you have today. They fail quite routinely,” Pelath said.

The draining of the marsh created productive farmland, communities that grew on now dry land, and wealth generated for local, regional and state economies.

“You wouldn’t have Wanatah if not for that activity. You wouldn’t have places like Union Mills and LaCrosse. They wouldn’t have been able to develop there,” Pelath said.

The downside is the drained areas continue to flood because they are still in the historic flood plain.

“You’ve got relentless sediment and erosion that clogs the channels. This 1.3 million acres is continually wanting to revert to its original state,” Pelath said.

Also, increased human activity, along with increased precipitation, add water to the system more quickly.

“Everyone has known this was a problem for decades and everybody talked about addressing the implications of this long-ago work for many many years until the flood of 2018,” Pelath said.

The February 2018 flood, caused by 2 feet of snowmelt and heavy rain, resulted in costly damage to private property and public infrastructure – such as State Road 8.

“These things, without some remediation, are going to keep happening,” Pelath said.

“We’ve got more water – more water – because this increased velocity leads to more erosion. More erosion makes it harder to contain the additional water that you have. It’s really a spiral,” he added.

Trees along the banks continually fall in because they are being undercut by the river. Log jams occur frequently and require continual attention.

“That’s another spiral. They fall in, they drag a chunk of the bank with it, you get even more sediment and more erosion than you otherwise would have,” Pelath said.

He said the river basin commission’s goal is to co-exist with the natural resources and still maintain the economic components essential to the region.

“What’s different now, as opposed to 100 years ago, is we have to figure out a way to work with nature when we’re able. Back then, they went full force into nature. We don’t have to continue to do that,” Pelath said.
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