By Stuart R. Wahlin
Officials representing Winnebago County, the City of Rockford, the Village of Cherry Valley and nearby townships gathered together April 27 to address an issue that isn’t going away—flooding.
“We have some significant issues on some of our watersheds with regards to, obviously, water flow and erosion and flooding issues,” Winnebago County Engineer Joe Vanderwerff said.
Indicating that no quadrant of the county is immune to the drainage issues, County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) called the meeting at the county’s administration building as a first step to developing a coordinated plan to address storm-water management as a team, rather than solving one community’s problem at the expense of another downstream.
The meeting came in the wake of a petition drive that successfully blocked a proposed tax in a Special Assessment Area (SSA) in Cherry Valley to fund a $1.6 million flood control improvement project at the village’s 43-acre Regional Storm Water Detention Facility near the Route 20 bypass and Harrison Avenue.
JoAnne Hudson, one of the petition drive’s leaders, argued: “You have 2,000 people, or 3,000 people, in Cherry Valley, and they have 400 people paying for this whole thing. That’s not right.”
Objectors asserted the cost of addressing the flooding caused by runoff from the heavily-commercial corridor’s rooftops and parking lots to the north should not be a burden borne solely by the property owners within the SSA.
Fellow objector Theresa Fernbaugh added, “We want to stress working together and trying to get the problem fixed, instead of just getting a chosen few people that are paying for it.”
Christiansen apparently agrees.
“That whole issue prompted, frankly, this meeting,” he acknowledged. “It’s an issue that affects all of us.”
Having met the number of signatures required by statute, the objectors have blocked the village from proposing the tax for the next two years, but the need for action to address the flooding problem remains.
But during the April 27 meeting, area municipalities did come together to discuss possible solutions and funding sources.
Madigan Creek watershed
Cherry Valley lies within the Madigan Creek watershed, as do portions of Rockford Township and City of Rockford jurisdictions.
Noting he was pleased that everyone had come to the table as a single planning unit, Nathan Hill, former watershed coordinator for the Kishwaukee River Ecosystem Partnership (KREP), asserted, “The water doesn’t care about political boundaries.”
During his tenure with KREP, Hill said, the group developed a watershed management plan to address issues affecting 1,250 square miles of the Kishwaukee River, of which Madigan Creek is a tributary.
“There’s an opportunity here to retrofit Madigan Creek to address flooding concerns, address water quality concerns, and give benefits to the Kishwaukee River,” he said.
“One of the things that spurred a lot of my interest in this area was the development of the Wal-Mart that happened on East State Street,” Hill explained. “When they applied for their permit, we submitted a letter to the Army Corps [of Engineers], expressing some concern about the watershed.”
Hill also specifically pointed to the impacts of the Lowe’s and Menards developments, which were also built on wetlands.
“There’s been a lot of disturbance of the natural system over time,” he said. “Wetlands are wonderful tools for a watershed, as well as many other open spaces where water is able to percolate into the soil, rather than rooftops and asphalt, which accelerate storm flows and create problems like we’ve seen in many of the watersheds.”
Judy Barnard, president of the Natural Land Institute Board of Trustees, agreed.
“Wetlands are there for a reason, and they need to be protected,” she asserted. “I think that we need to go back to understanding why wetlands exist, and then make sure we don’t develop them.”
Although drainage systems and detention ponds in the area help, to an extent, to control the quantity of water flowing, Hill argued the equally important issue of water quality is not being addressed.
“When a small, general rain washes the greases and oils off of a parking lot, this is like a mainline to the stream channel. There’s no natural vegetation or anything to filter that water before it enters the creek or stream,” he noted. “The volume and velocity of the water going through there is tremendous, so even with these storm-water basins, we’re seeing excessive erosion.
“That sediment ends up flowing downstream,” he added, noting CherryVale Mall then adds to the runoff. “All that sediment and all the washing ends up in Cherry Valley’s detention pond. And then they have to, on a regular basis, pay to have it dredged and cleaned up.”
Ultimately, Hill said, the sediment then flows into the Kishwaukee River.
“The Kishwaukee River is a very valuable asset to this community,” he noted, referring to several species of endangered animals and plants that rely on its waters. “It is an extremely high-quality stream.”
Nancy Williamson, regional watershed coordinator for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, explained the key to solving the problem is to properly manage the area’s significant rainfall.
“We have approximately 37 inches of rain—that sometimes come all at once—but 1 acre of land getting 37 inches of rain in one year is…1 million gallons of water,” she noted. “So, the issue is to hold it and infiltrate it.”
Hill proposed one possible grant source for development and implementation of a watershed plan.
“There is funding available from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency [IEPA], under the Clean Water Act, Section 319,” he reported. “The plan has to encompass and include all of the players, and also has to include several key components, in order for the EPA to fund it.”
Williamson noted state and federal funding is typically in the amount of 60 percent, but suggested the group offer a 50 percent local match to improve its chances for funding.
“The watershed plan, by the time you’re done, particularly in a discrete watershed like this, which isn’t a monstrous watershed, will be specifically looking at where those boundaries are, where—if you have any sewer sheds—they are, what your most critical problems are in relation to water quality, how you can address the issue of the volume and velocity of the waters that you’re getting, because IEPA’s main concern is degradation of water quality,” Williamson stressed. “Their main concern is not flooding, so the way that application is written discusses how you look at these water quality issues.”
She noted sediment would qualify as a pollutant under the criteria, as would elevated levels of fecal bacteria, if present. Although the purpose of the IEPA’s 319 funding is to improve water quality, Williamson said such solutions could secondarily address the flooding issues that prompted the meeting.
According to Hill, the application must identify sources of pollution, estimate sediment load reductions, describe the best management practices needed to address the pollution, describe the amount of financial assistance being sought, outline planned informational and educational outreach to the community for controlling pollution, include an implementation timeline and how progress will be evaluated, as well as plans for ongoing monitoring.
The application deadline is Aug. 1, and a determination whether the project is eligible for IEPA funding would likely be made in January. If approved, Hill said development of the plan would take up to two years.
Vanderwerff proposed the construction of three additional detention ponds to supplement four existing ones in the Madigan Creek watershed. He estimated the cost for construction, not including engineering, to be as high as $497,860, and that annual maintenance of the ponds would cost up to $21,925.75.
Williamson said detention ponds could qualify for 319 funding only if they address water quality, but Rockford Storm-Water Manager Brian Eber suggested that other grant sources be explored.
“A 319 is always a place to start. …It’s a great tool for the planning aspect of it. And then, that may open other avenues for you,” Eber noted. “If nothing else, it gets us in a room, it gets us focused on some different things moving forward, ’cause we’re all in this together.
“Winnebago County was declared a disaster area in 2008, as we all know,” he added. “I would suggest that you look into DCEO [Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development] CDAP [Community Development Assistance Program] grants for this kind of acquisition and storm-water control.”
The city has seen success in obtaining DCEO flood mitigation grants. Most recently, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) delivered a check for more than $1 million toward Keith Creek flood relief.
Eber seemed to disagree that detention ponds are the solution to the problem, however.
“The day of plugging in an old storm-water detention pond and calling ’er a day—we need to really get past that,” he asserted. “So, start with a 319, but you’ve gotta keep your eye on the real project, which is cleaning and maintaining that large detention facility you have.
“When a development happens, and we build these drainage ditches, we build these canals in people’s back yards, we’re not done when the house goes in and the yard’s complete,” Eber added. “There’s always gonna have to be reiterations.”
Hill concurred, “319 is not gonna…solve all of the problems, but I think it’s a good step in getting a dialogue, and getting everybody together to work collectively on a coordinated effort to start addressing some of these things.”
Williamson agreed there’s no single solution to the problem, but that it should be an ongoing process. She suggested an “intensive retrofit” of the urban watershed to eliminate the recurring cost of removing sediment from the detention facility.
“The biggest mistake I think we do is believe that we can do one large thing to take care of everything,” she said.
Rockford Township Highway Commissioner Dan Conness (D) wondered if a watershed plan would give any teeth to controlling the sources of the runoff.
“Is there any criteria for future development?” Conness asked. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the root of the problem because of development? You could spend all the money, have all the great plans, improve everything, but if you still allow…improper development, then you’re just gonna be back to the same problem 10, 15, 20, 30 years from now.”
Hill indicated the plans often do address zoning and storm-water ordinances, but Conness still had doubts.
“In theory, that sounds good,” he acknowledged. “But in reality, when you come down to some developer wanting to come in to develop something in this area, there’s a lot of arm-twisting and political maneuvering.”
Christiansen intervened, “Both the city and the county have spent an enormous amount of time on this 2030 [land-use] plan update, so the chances of this are at least much more limited than they ever were.”
Noting there’s not much room left for development in the Madigan Creek watershed, county board member Paul Gorski (D-5) responded to Conness: “It’s too late. It’s already built right up to it. I mean, there’s not much control we have. We just have to do the best we can to deal with it.”
Another area of focus
Vanderwerff indicated a second area of concern is around Welworth and Wentworth avenues in Rockford Township.
“There are several homes that have significant flooding issues in that area, and we want to try to find a way of retrofitting the subdivision—that I’m guessing was built in the ’50s, and water wasn’t a significant issue at that time—and we need to deal with these problems somehow,” he explained.
Eber noted the cost of addressing the problem in that area could be equally painful.
“You may need to acquire some properties, and they probably shouldn’t have been built there in the first place,” he said.
Christiansen acknowledged preliminary plans would involve the purchase and demolition of four homes at an estimated cost of $400,000.
Vanderwerff also proposed construction of a new detention pond at the north end of Welworth and Wentworth avenues at an estimated cost of up to $71,968.60, plus $5,308.60 in annual maintenance.
Additionally, if the pond is built, Welworth and Wentworth avenues would need to be reconstructed to connect in a U south of the detention area, instead of where they converge now at Delmar Street. The road reconstruction cost is estimated to be as high as $55,965.80.
Vanderwerff said he wasn’t sure to what extent, if any, the project might qualify for IEPA 319 assistance.
The next step
Despite a suggestion by Williamson to hire a consultant for the IEPA application process, Christiansen put that idea on hold, indicating Eber had been successful in acquiring two 319 grants for the City of Rockford without a consultant.
“That may be the ultimate answer, but at this point, we could put our heads together and do something that makes sense,” he said.
It is unclear which agency will take the lead in applying for the grant, but Christiansen said the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning (RMAP) might be the best candidate to represent the municipalities involved.
RMAP Executive Director Steve Ernst indicated, “We certainly would be happy to be the convener, but I think the technical capacity is gonna have to come from the county and the two cities for their engineering capacity.”
Meantime, Christiansen said the county would look into grant funding from the IEPA and other sources. Additional meetings are expected in the near future as the Aug. 1 application deadline draws near.
From the May 5-11, 2010 issue