Dam controversy develops

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112248313316691.jpg’, ‘Photo provided by Don Bloyer Sr.’, ‘This photo shows construction of Fordam Dam in downtown Rockford during 1975. The garage door-type gates on the dam open and close with rising and falling levels of the Rock River. In the foreground is a crane and dump truck. Boating advocates are lobbying authorities to maintain a river level of 702.94 above sea level for the section north of the dam. Commonwealth Edison officials, who operate the dam, argue the dam is not designed to maintain river levels.’);

Whether the Fordam Dam in downtown Rockford can manipulate levels of the Rock River for recreational purposes has emerged as another hot topic being disputed by area boaters and authorities, in addition to the controversial “No-Wake Zone.”

On one side of the controversy is river barge owner and operator Steve Lucas, who asserted the Rock River north of the dam, where boaters often recreate, is needlessly low because the garage door-like gates on the dam are left too far open. Lucas says this decreases the river level below the permit required 702.94 feet above sea level.

Lucas claimed the unnecessarily low river level prevents or inhibits boats that are docked from entering the water. He also claimed low river levels create more hazards for users by restricting boaters to deeper sections to prevent damage to the bottom of watercraft, engines and propellers from sandbars, rocks, tree branches or other obstructions.

On the other side of the dispute is Paul Callighan, regional external affairs manager for Commonwealth Edison Company, which owns and operates the Fordam Dam that was constructed in the mid-1970s. Callighan claimed Fordam is a “run-of-the-river” dam, which doesn’t have the ability to regulate the water level to the extent Lucas would like.

What’s missing is an independent expert to settle the dispute of whether Fordam Dam has the ability to regulate the river level for recreational purposes north of the dam. Such an expert was identified, but could not be contacted by time of publication.

Dr. Paul J. Richards, dam expert and assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan, published a 2003 report that considered “the effects dam operation procedures have on water levels and discharges in the river system.”

According to Richards’ report, there are different types of run-of-the-river dams. Each depends on how much time water is retained upstream from the dam, which results in differences in water levels on both sides of the dam from a few inches to a few feet.

According to Lucas, the difference between upstream and downstream river levels at the Fordam Dam is about five to six feet.

Callighan added the two water-level sensors located in the middle of the dam and on the adjacent east bank regulate the gates, which open and close automatically on site. However, the dam is remotely monitored 24 hours a day at ComEd’s dispatch station in Joliet.

If river levels drop below 702 feet or rise above 703.6 feet, the dispatch center notifies personnel to investigate the situation and take appropriate action.

Lucas wants ComEd to open and close the gates on the dam to maintain a river level of 702.94 feet above sea level on the north side of the dam. He added that river level is what was required when the predecessor to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued a permit to operate the dam in 1975.

However, Lucas asserted that river level has not been achieved since May of this year, which has turned away river traffic and hurt businesses that depend on boaters.

Callighan blamed the low river levels on the drought and possible restrictions of water flow into the Rock River somewhere in Wisconsin. He also asserted that the dam is not designed to regulate river levels.

Lucas wants Winnebago County Sheriff Richard Meyers to force ComEd to live up to terms described in the 1975 Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permit, since Meyers’ department is already voluntarily enforcing an enlarged No Wake Zone on the river for the DNR.

Specifically, Lucas wants Meyers to enforce the 702.94 feet river level described in the permit.

Meyers appeared to agree with Lucas concerning the dam’s ability to affect river levels, but disagreed with Lucas in terms of his department’s enforcement of river level requirements in the permit.

“Although I’m not a dam expert, in my opinion, the dam should be operated to accommodate recreational uses since it’s no longer being used to generate electricity… The dam’s manner of management has effects on river levels as far up [north] as the Latham Road bridge,” Meyers said.

He added that his department has no control over operations of the dam. However, Meyers said his department often contacts dam operators, including ComEd, to ask them if they can positively affect the river level for Rockford-area boaters.

“Our job is public safety on the river, not operation of the dam,” Meyers said. Specifically, he added his department was concerned with motorboat operations.

“Enforcement of the river level is not up to the Sheriff’s Department. It’s up to ComEd,” he said.

“The sensors have malfunctioned,” Lucas said. “If the Sheriff says he has to enforce the DNR’s new No Wake Zone for safety reasons, why doesn’t he have to enforce the DNR’s permit for ComEd to operate the dam at the 702.94 feet river level for the safety of boaters on the recreational pool above the dam?”

From the July 27-Aug. 2, 2005, issue

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