PORTAGE — When Jody Melton agreed to take on the job of executive director to the Kankakee River Basin Commission in 1981, the junior high social studies teacher thought it would be an interesting challenge.
"I never expected this to be a career," Melton said recently.
Now, after 37 years, Melton is retiring, effective today.
It's been 37 years of coordinating initiatives aimed at flood control and drainage during a time when increased development in the watershed replaced permeable ground with asphalt and concrete. Rain and groundwater shoots to the river faster now and has resulted in major flood events over the years. The basin is the drainage outlet for 1.9 million acres, 1.6 million of which is cropland.
It's been 37 years of developing plans and budgets, then traveling to Indianapolis to lobby for funds to support them since the KRBC has no taxing authority.
It's been 37 years of networking with local, state and federal agencies to maintain water quality, preserve wetlands and support fishing, hunting and recreation on the river.
"He's been a good advocate," state Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, said. "He's well respected by those on the state and federal side...He's a big asset."
Melton got a baptism by fire, or, rather, by flood in 1982 when the Kankakee swelled its banks to record depths in the first of many flood events for him along the river's length through Indiana. He recalls many trips to Indianapolis with Lake County Commissioner Ernie Niemeyer, a former state senator and father of Rick Niemeyer, who also presided as KRBC president. "Jody and my dad worked together really well...There was that really bad flood between Shelby and Schneider then," Rick Niemeyer recalled.
For those fighting back the Kankakee over the years, Melton has been a familiar sight driving through floodwaters along the river or tramping along the river's banks looking for breaks. He has regularly arranged for sand and sandbags through the watershed counties,and the locals went to work filling them and putting them in place.
"Over the years, we've learned that we can't dig out enough and we can't build levees high enough to solve the problems at the river," Melton said. That's why, he said, he is comfortable in retiring since a bistate study has begun marking a new direction for the river's stewards.
"We have Chrisopher Burke Engineering completing a work plan draft by the first of the year, and the work and contract includes Kankakee County and Iriquois County in Illinois. ... This is huge," Melton said. The prospect of entities on both side of the state line investing in addressing river issues is one he's worked toward throughout his tenure.
"Sen. Niemeyer and others are supporting this following this past spring flood (in March) and intend to get funding from the counties as well as supplemental from the state," Melton said. "It seems I can smile at my work and know I got the KRBC this far."
For his part, Melton said, "It's been stressful at times, but good at times ... I've made a bunch of friends."
As executive director to the KRBC, Melton's passion for his work has spilled over almost as much as the Kankakee. Armed with his masters degrees in geology and geography and a healthy love of history, Melton looks back now and says, "The Kankakee has kind of fascinated me."
Melton said his wife Maureen retired as a special education teacher four years ago. Their three children have given them grandchildren who will be seeing more of him now, he said. He intends to continue on the DeMotte Plan Commission, where he has served "forever." He's also in his third term on the Jasper County Library Board.