Historic flooding along the Kankakee River this spring washed away topsoil, roads — and at least one bridge. But it might just bring a long-awaited solution to flooding throughout the watershed in both Indiana and Illinois.
A $225,000 bistate study is looking at the entire watershed to identify potential actions.
Minutes from the April 12 meeting of the Kankakee River Basin Commission indicate a long list of damage from the Feb. 14 rainstorm that dropped a few inches of rain onto frozen ground.
Porter County spent $105,000 in repairs.
Lake County spent $47,000 in pumping water at Shelby and Wildwood.
LaPorte County needed $20,000 to remove debris. Combined with Indiana Department of Natural Resources land, the total cost to repair and restore that area was set at $150,000.
Elsewhere, Newton County listed $62,500 in repairs made. St. Joseph County had $42,000 in repairs coming from a maintenance fund. Marshall County had $10,000 in repair costs.
Total requests for funding from the commission were $177,500. But just $161,732.18 was available at the time.
Porter County’s toll in the millions
Throughout Porter County, the flooding from that storm affected 33 stretches of road, with three washed out and closed until further notice, according to county Highway Superintendent Rich Sexton.
Three bridges sustained damage because of scour and erosion and subsequently were repaired. A fourth, at County Road 50 West over Sandy Hook Ditch, remains closed because its foundation was undermined, County Engineer Michael Novotney said. That bridge will have to be replaced.
Porter County is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help with projects totaling more than $1.8 million, Novotney said. That doesn’t account for damage to private property.
“Extreme flooding events like the one we experienced earlier this year reinforce the need for comprehensive stormwater management programs like the one we are developming here at Porter County,” Novotney said.
The county is setting floodplain standards to minimize altering streams and floodplains during development projects and taking into account peak runoff rates and volumes to control flooding. Detention basins can be required, too, Novotney said.
“Another tool in our toolbox is to investigate the buyout and removal of properties repetitively flooded during flood events, rather than routinely repairing properties damaged by flooding — typically at a cost to the public. Those repetitive damages can be eliminated by removing those structures from flood-prone areas,” Novotney said.
Area around Kankakee all wet
The problem in February was “just a ton of water that hit all at once,” on top of frozen ground that couldn’t absorb the water, said Jody Melton, executive director of the Kankakee River Basin Commission.
Melton is retiring Dec. 31, being replaced by former state Rep. Scott Pelath, a Long Beach Democrat.
Melton has spent his career trying to figure out how to control flooding along the Kankakee.
Along the Wabash River, flooding was solved by creating lakes, including the Salamonie and Mississinewa reservoirs.
“The problem with the Kankakee is the water table is so high, we can’t dig a deep lake,” he said.
In some places, the water table is as high as just a foot below the surface. Under the sand is clay that keeps the water table high, explained Tammy Patterson, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, stationed at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in Porter.
“When the Kankakee floods, nobody’s going to drown, but you’re going to have a foot of water 10 miles wide,” Melton said.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal about 20 years ago suggested restoring the Grand Kankakee Marsh. That “pretty much went over like a lead balloon,” Melton said. The idea was reintroduced last year in Illinois.
“It’s just so controversial in Indiana that they just didn’t want to come back over to this area,” he said.
What the federal agency proposed is a reversal, on a smaller scale, of a major drainage project that ended a century ago.
When Indiana became a state, what we now consider the Kankakee River was the Grand Kankakee Marsh.
The massive wetland — an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 acres, depending on the season — drew sportsmen from all over the world who wanted to hunt the abundant waterfowl.
“Whenever you hear it described as paradise, the only thing they leave out is the mosquitoes,” said John Hodson, founder of the Kankakee Valley Historical Society.
In 1878, the Louisville Gun Club built the first sportsman’s club along the river, at what is now Baums Bridge Road, Hodson said.
At the same time, though, the Kankakee Drainage Co. was working to drain the swamp.
Individual farmers and counties were doing drainage work to claim what looked like fertile land, but in reality was on a few inches of topsoil, for cropland, Hodson said.
By 1915, one-third of the marsh was already drained, he said.
Then, in 1918, dredges built at Baums Bridge worked eastward and westward along the river to finish pulling the plug on the marsh.
“It’s amazing, the technology, how fast they were able to destroy it. I mean, a year!” Hodson said.
The map of the Kankakee River changed, with meanders no longer included. Much of the river now is a straight ditch because of the 1918 dredging.
“What slows down water is friction, so the more curves that water has, the more it slows down that water,” Hodson said.
“Actually, there is no Kankakee River. It’s the Marble-Powers Ditch, at least in this segment,” he said.
The marsh, for the most part, is gone.
“I think it’s going to come back. Now how it comes back, whether it’s like we just ignore climate change is happening, it’s going to come back — because we’re going to have more flooding,” Patterson said.
Climate change is real, and it’s going to affect people along the Kankakee, she said.
“We’re looking at much more rainfall, probably 35 or 40 percent more than what we’re used to,” Patterson said.
“Last year we had a lot more rain in the spring, and it took the farmers longer to get the crops in the field,” she said. Expect that to intensify as the decades roll by.
“Just this year, we got our first tropical storm that ever came up here. That’s a big deal,” Patterson said. “I thought we’re pretty far from tropical storms and hurricanes — that one blew up here.”
Residents should expect a pattern of heavy spring rains and summer droughts, she said.
By the 2080s, predictions show a doubling of springtime rain; wet, earlier winters; and dry summers.
“Maybe in the future we’ll be growing cotton around here,” Patterson said.
With climate change, floodplains will need to be redrawn.
“Basically, our present 100-year flood is going to be our 20-year flood, and our 500-year flood will be our 50-year flood,” Patterson said.
“When the floodplain expands, I think my house will be in the floodplain,” the Kouts resident said.
Preventing floods with the state's help
“We have all this rain in the springtime, it runs off, because we’re so well ditched, it doesn’t get a chance to infiltrate into the groundwater supply, and then when you need it, it’s not there,” she said.
If the water is held in ponds, or a wetland as before, flooding would be mitigated and groundwater reserves recharged, Patterson said.
“We’re going to have to store water somewhere,” Melton said.
The Kankakee River Basin Commission and partners in Illinois are funding a $225,000 study by Christopher Burke Engineering that has expanded to cover the entire watershed. Cost estimates are expected by Jan. 1 so the Indiana General Assembly will have some numbers to use when a new biennial budget is drafted.
State Reps. Mike Aylesworth, Doug Gutwein and Jim Pressel, and state Sens. Mike Bohacek and Rick Niemeyer asked surveyors to attend a meeting this year to say what’s needed to recover from this spring’s flood and what might be done in the future, Melton said.
The study is a result of that request.
The consultant began July 1, but the final report is not expected until April or May, Melton said.
Melton believe it’s the most comprehensive study of its kind, and certainly the first to cover both states.
Restoring the marsh a process
“It seems we finally have gotten the message across that you’re not going to control all this water in that main channel,” he said.
“If we’re smart, we can restore areas along the way and buy up some of that flooded land,” Patterson said.
Environmental activist Jim Sweeney, on behalf of the Izaak Walton League, is asking the consultant to restore parts of the old marsh and add meanders, or curves, back to the river.
It’s easy to find people in Illinois who now are having serious flooding issues because water rushing downstream from Indiana is filling up the Illinois portion of the river with Hoosier sand — “a direct result of the state of Indiana having drained 500,000 acres of marshland and channelizing a 250-mile river into a 90-mile ditch,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney recommends a wide levee approach like the one in Lake County.
The Niemeyer levee, as it’s called, is a prototype between Schneider and Shelby. The levees were set back from the river to allow “about 1,000, maybe 1,500 acres” to flood, Melton said.
At Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park in the southeastern corner of Lake County, the Kankakee River Basin Commission restored about 10,000 acres along the Kankakee, Melton said. The agency only bought from willing buyers.
“We kind of ran out of land to buy,” Melton said.