Guest Column: Fordam Dam’s problems and future

By Steve Lucas
Rock River Homeowners’ Association President

Hello to all my fellow river and area residents. I am happy to say the weather is great this season, and there are no floods to report about yet this year. I believe this is what summer should be like every year, hot and sunny.

I would like to bring all of you up to speed on the latest about Fordam Dam. The Dam committee of the Rock River Homeowners’ Association (RRHA) has been monitoring the water levels on a weekly basis for the past few years. This was started after the installation of a water level gauge next to the dam done by the RRHA. For the past 20-plus years, we have had to rely on the water level data given to us by the ComEd spokesperson. And the generalized comment received from ComEd was always the same, “We are at the [Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR)] permit level of 702.5 ft. above sea level.” This setting is the level at which the permit states the level should remain.

Things have changed drastically since our gauge went in and monitoring began. The water levels are regulated more closely now that we have the ability to notify ComEd when the levels are above or below the permitted (702.5) level.

This has made a big impact on the water levels after the last few years of flooding. In the past when we went to “flood stage,” we could count on losing about four to six weeks of boating time. Now, by monitoring the gauge, gates and water levels at the dam, we are able to stop holding back water and keeping the river from being a retention pond.

The existing dam was built in 1975 to better service the low-water concerns and to have four gates that are able to be opened to reduce the high-water floods. When the river (which is a drainage basin) is bombarded with an excessive amount of rain, we only ask that ComEd run the dam according to what it was designed to do. That is, for the safety and enjoyment of all who live and play on one of our most valuable assets.

This season is unlike most others compared to the past few years. The water went to drought level in July, which is usually something we are used to in late August if it is a dry summer with minimal rain levels. The gates at the dam were not closed fully until July 20, 2011, and despite the lack of rain and numerous calls to Paul Callighan at ComEd, the water levels remained at drought level.

Some major issues have been discovered about Fordam Dam. First, the gauges used at the dam to maintain a water level of 702.5 feet are not accurate. Second, the gates are not run or maintained properly.  ComEd did admit on July 21, 2011, that there is a 6-inch difference between the water level on their gauge at the dam and the level that our  gauge reads. Our gauge is calibrated from a licensed surveyor that the RRHA paid for a few years ago. Our gauge is accurate to within 0.05 of an inch.

During a tour of the dam last summer while at peak flood, the gauges in the control room of the dam were observed. The digital gauge used by ComEd was off, and a press-on label said to add 1 foot.

Also, during the drought of 2005, gate No. 4 would not close fully, and it was stated by ComEd that there was a tree stuck under it, and that is why it would not close.

This month after all gates were “closed,” gate No. 3 was stuck open approximately 1 foot. A work order was generated, and ComEd agreed to have it looked at sometime before the end of September 2011. In my opinion, it would be nice if the problems with the dam and water levels were put as a top priority. For those of us who pay for the riverfront property, let our voices be heard and make it a higher priority and repair the problems with the dam.

ComEd is in phase two of an environmental survey that includes the property south of the dam. This is the vacant lot owned by ComEd and the location of the old power generating plant. ComEd states that the City of Rockford would like to purchase this property, and with it comes the ownership of the dam. While we can only hope if the city takes over ownership of the dam, will this mean that the water levels will be more closely regulated?

Most dams have a 50-year service life, and this would mean that in approximately 14 or so years, our current dam would potentially need a large number of repairs. This is food for thought for us taxpayers since that price tag could be passed on to us if the City of Rockford does, indeed, purchase the property and the dam.

ComEd would like to sell the City of Rockford the land and the dam for the sum of $1, and in return, they want a $3.9 million tax write-off. Also, they would like to stop paying the $55,000 per year property taxes and be relieved of any damage claims from the upstream residents, past or present.

Let us hope that before the City of Rockford purchases the property and the dam, they require it to be brought up to a proper operating level and that the existing problems be repaired. The owner of the dam is responsible for all the maintenance of the dam, and it would be nice if the dam had a properly-working water level gauge. This has not happened yet, and a working water level gauge is a must.

If these issues are not being addressed, what other underlying problems might there be with the dam?

If you are concerned as a river or city resident, I urge you to call the mayor and/or your alderman and express that the dam needs to be brought up to a quality operating condition. Urge that all the dam’s problems be fixed before we purchase the land and the dam. I am sure that it would pain the city and taxpayers to find out six months down the road after the purchase that hundreds of thousands of dollars would be needed to fix their investment.

With the current low water levels, the problem of sand bars has become a reality. The RRHA is in the process of making lighted warning buoys to mark these areas to help with safety on the river. The sand bars that have been brought to our attention are at the south end of National Avenue on the west bank where the creek runs into the river. The other areas are north of Auburn Street bridge on the east bank, and the south side of the country club island area. Watch out off Shore Drive’s  bank and north of the log house north of Latham Road bridge. Watch out just across the river on the west bank, where the creek empties in, and on the west bank south of Bridge Street.

If you have discovered any dangerous areas that are shallow, please contact a board member from the RRHA or me at, so we can try to address your issue. I hope the remainder of the 2011 boating season is like the first half. Happy boating, and stay safe.

From the Aug. 10-16, 2011, issue

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