There’s no lack of conflict between Illinois and Indiana, whether it’s over businesses and jobs or Big Ten sports.
People in Kankakee County have added water, silt and sand to that list.
For the last 100 years, since Indiana straightened the meandering Kankakee River and drained the Grand Kankakee Marsh with a network of ditches, Illinois has been the recipient of the Hoosier State’s sediment-borne river water.
That has meant a steady buildup of sand on the Illinois side, creating ever-larger sandbars where there once was a river channel.
"There’s a section of the river upstream from me that is completely a sandbar all the way across," said Mark Siwicki, the owner of a tree nursery outside of Momence.
At 55 years old, he’s a lifelong resident on the north bank of the Kankakee River.
If one channel is blocked, a river will find a new one.
"It goes back through the woods in a roundabout path to get back to the river," Siwicki said. "It has cut itself a new path."
Residents and officials in Illinois fear a new quarry in northwest Indiana will only make the river’s health worse.
The Rieth-Riley Construction Co., based in Goshen, Ind., is developing a 600-acre operation east of Interstate 65 near Lowell, Ind. A large road construction firm, Rieth-Riley wants the limestone that lies beneath the fertile farmland — apparently for future highway projects.
A company spokesman last week declined to answer questions about the quarry and its business plans.
Digging a big hole in the ground means encountering water.
As Rieth-Riley removes the soil-and-sand overburden and mines the limestone, the surrounding groundwater will flow into the quarry. As it extracts more limestone, the company has to pump that water somewhere.
And that somewhere is the Singleton Ditch, which runs parallel to the Kankakee River in Indiana and discharges into the river 2 miles upstream from Momence.
According to various news reports, the quarry is expected to discharge up to 12 million gallons of a water a day. Its permits allow it to pump more than four times that amount, but that may not happen. The quarry can only pump as much water as the Singleton Ditch can hold.
Eugene Yarkie, vice president of Reith-Riley Construction Co., told the Kankakee Daily Journal last month that 2 million to 3 million gallons a day will be more typical.
But that assurance is not sitting well in Illinois.
"The Singleton Ditch has been one of the most horrible things that has ever happened to the Kankakee River," said Bob Siwick, brother and business partner to Mark Siwicki.
The Siwickis, whose residences and business adjoin the mouth of the Singleton, cite the muddy brown, sediment-laden water that flows into the river.
"In the springtime when we get rains, it’s like chocolate milk coming out of there," Bob Siwicki said.
Wildlife scientists and elected officials share the Siwickis’ concerns that the additional discharge from the quarry may further harm the river’s habitat and contribute to flooding.
Elizabeth McCloskey, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sent a letter last month to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, asking that the quarry not be given a permit to discharge water into the Singleton Ditch.
McCloskey’s letter — citing research by the U.S. Geological and the Illinois State Natural History, Water and Geological surveys — said the quarry’s water would likely stir up additional sand and other sediments in the Singleton and deposit them in the river.
"The additional sediments and the redisposition of existing sediments are likely to affect the aquatic resources of the river, with fish and mussels being of particular concern," the letter stated.
Indiana’s environmental department, however, granted the permit earlier this month. The department’s statement did acknowledge Illinois’ environmental concerns but said its jurisdiction is limited to Indiana.
As far as Mark Siwicki is concerned, what Indiana was telling Illinois was: "Don’t really care what happens down there as long as we’re rid of it. You deal with it. Here it comes."
The water discharge permit takes effect Sept. 29 unless there’s a challenge.
And there might be.
Illinois Congresswoman Robin Kelly, D-Matteson, whose 2nd District includes Kankakee County, asked the Indiana Office of Environmental Adjudication last week to place a stay on the quarry’s operation. She wants a public discussion on the quarry’s potential impact on the Kankakee River in both states.
Jim Wieser — an attorney in Schererville, Ind., who has represented the Singleton Quarry as it sought permits from the county and the state — is incredulous that people are now trying to halt the quarry.
"From my perspective, where was everybody six years ago?"
Late Friday, Rieth-Riley CEO A. Keith Rose issued a statement:
"For over five years, we have diligently followed the appropriate process to obtain proper approvals from local, state and federal agencies to proceed with the quarry project. Throughout this time, the opposition has had multiple opportunities to share its views, which have appeared repeatedly in press accounts in recent days. We appreciate the thorough review by all involved, and we look forward to continuing work on a project that will benefit the Lake County community, the northwest Indiana region and the state of Indiana."
For a century, the two states have exploited the Kankakee River in dramatically different ways: drainage for farmland in Indiana, and drinking water and recreation in Illinois.
But through most of the 19th century, the Kankakee River was a remarkable natural resource.
The river’s headwaters lie in South Bend, Ind., a short distance from the St. Joseph River, which flows northwest to Lake Michigan. For centuries, the two rivers — via the South Bend portage — connected the Great Lakes to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers and to the Gulf of Mexico. Native people and French fur traders used this as one of their canoe routes.
The Kankakee River flows over a nearly level land, falling just a few inches each mile. The slow, meandering stream created the Grand Kankakee Marsh, once one of the largest wetlands in the northern United States. The marsh, compared with the Everglades for its size (400,000 acres or more) and thriving wildlife habitat, provided waterfowl and timber for fast-growing Chicago.
But the 19th century brought the steel plow and an increasing demand for farmland. The first drainage ditches were dug in 1850s. After the Civil War and with the aid of steam shovels, more ditches were dug. All the muck that was dug up became levees. Water was pumped out of the surrounding land — leaving dry, tillable ground.
From 1917 to 1922, the river itself was dredged, and its crooked channel was made straight.
That Illinois has treated the river differently is due to geology. At Momence in eastern Kankakee County, the river meets the limestone bedrock and picks up speed. The river doesn’t meander as much as it makes its way to the Illinois River. Cutting a straight channel didn’t make sense.
In her letter to Indiana officials, Rep. Kelly calls for a comprehensive treatment of the Kankakee River.
"The time has come for more bistate (and federal) cooperation and coordination to better identify the needs and address the concerns of residents on both sides of the state line who live near, work near, depend on or simply enjoy life along the Kankakee River basin."
Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette’s editorial board. He can be reached at 217-351-5218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.