Vermilion River Reopened to Public

News Tribune 3/31/2012

Jeff Dankert
Staff Writer






Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller stood by the Vermilion River Saturday and said: “I now as director of natural resources declare this river open. Get on it.”

“We have been working on this particular day for a long time,” Miller said, calling Saturday “a great day for outdoor recreation.”

Miller and about 60 people gathered in Lowell to celebrate the river’s reopening after nearly three years of closure because of an unsafe dam. The dam was repaired and modified last year. Saturday’s ceremony was in Lowell at the launch site for Vermilion River Rafting, the business most impacted by the closure.
Vermilion River Rafting’s season begins May 1, when it sends clients downstream on short raft trips. Owner Bob Herbst said the season might start earlier.

“Normally the water’s so darn cold before May 1 but we may go before that because of the mild weather,” Herbst said.

The dam and adjoining land are owned by Lone Star Industries Inc., known as Buzzi Unicem USA, near Oglesby. Buzzi closed the dam and river July 2, 2009, after one person died and others were injured in rafting accidents.

The DNR worked with Buzzi and other groups to complete an agreement where Buzzi Unicem ownership remains but the DNR has authority to reopen the river to paddling and rafting. This was modeled after a similar private-public agreement for a hydroelectric dam on the Rock River, said State Rep. Frank Mautino (D- Spring Valley), who played a pivotal role in negotiations.

“The neat thing about today is everybody standing here today has been involved,” Mautino said.

Barry Welbers and Tom Wall of the Better Fishing Association of Northern Illinois attended.

“When this river was closed to public access it was a grave concern for all our membership,” Welbers said.

Buzzi’s dam created undercurrents that pulled boats against the dam and capsized them. Workers removed steel rods and placed concrete blocks to eliminate this undertow. The DNR assessed water flow using experienced whitewater enthusiasts and established a restricted area with signs and buoys.

La Salle County Board Chairman Jerry Hicks said the reopening is important for tourism. Oglesby Mayor Don Finley attended. So did citizen Pam Skoporc of Oglesby. She collaborated with the Fishing Association to lobby for reopening. When the debate began in 2009 she floated down the river for the first time, she said. Saturday, she celebrated the solution.

"I’m very happy with it,” Skoporc said. “The people were good. To me it’s being a good citizen and taking care of our natural resources for everybody, not just business concerns.”

Jake Krancic and John Gillio, local residents who use the river frequently, were there.

“Finally,” Krancic said. “This will help Bob (Herbst) out for sure. And Oglesby.”

For his part Herbst will provide rafters safety tips and “try to discourage alcohol on the river,” he said. A new sign at the launch educates boaters about the risks.
“I hope I can be as good a representative to the county as everyone else,” Herbst said.

The river area at, below and above the low head dam is designated a restricted area under Illinois Administrative Rule. The only legal access over the low head dam is to river-right (right side of river looking downstream).  The restricted area is marked with hanging buoys.



Sgt. Hank Frazier, state conservation officer, said boaters should not try to portage around the dam. Because of the steep rock bank there is no safe place to take a canoe out and walk it around the dam. Secondly, under provisions of the restricted area, it is not allowed and would be trespassing on property of Buzzi Unicem, Frazier said.

The DNR reminded recreational users that whitewater, rapids and dams of all types on all rivers are inherently dangerous. Awareness of the river waters ahead is imperative to personal safety.