MICHIGAN CITY — Thanks to a recently enacted Indiana law, those dedicated to combating flooding along the Kankakee River have some new powers and resources to solve a problem more than a century in the making.
Former state legislator Scott Pelath, now executive director of the Kankakee River Basin and Yellow River Basin Development Commission, shared more about the history of the basin and the state's new plan to deal with ongoing issues with the League of Women Voters on Tuesday in Michigan City.
Pelath discussed the recently enacted Public Law 282, which, among other provisions, will call for annual tax assessments for properties in the basin beginning in 2021 to help fund flood-reduction efforts along the Kankakee and Yellow rivers.
The act, which Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law in May, is a response to the severe flooding that occurred along the Kankakee River last year, Pelath said
The 1.3-million-acre basin – which runs through eight Indiana counties, including southern La Porte County, which contains the largest share of the basin – has suffered from issues with overflowing water for decades.
That's due to erosion issues stemming from the straightening and dredging of the Kankakee River more than a century ago, Pelath said. The basin was once the second-largest marshland in the nation before state and local governments took on a nearly 40-year project to drain it, completed in 1917.
While the project created 1.1 million acres of some of the world's most productive farmland, it also removed meanders and other areas for excess waters to flow, Pelath said. The work also sped up the water flow and altered the natural current of the river, which now flows closer to the banks rather than in the center, resulting in further erosion.
The rising rate of annual precipitation the region has experienced since 1923 compounds these issues, resulting in higher and higher water levels along the river, he said.
"There's more water in the system, and more water leads to more erosion, and more erosion makes it harder to contain the water," Pelath said.
The increased sediment caused by erosion also impacts the quality of water along the Kankakee, he said.
Public Law 282 contains several provisions to help solve problems affecting the basin.
The first is streamlining the Kankakee River Basin Commission, the body responsible for overseeing the development of the river and surrounding area. On top of renaming the commission, the law reduced the number of members from 24 to nine, which should allow them to meet more regularly and take more decisive action, Pelath said.
The law also gives the commission the authority to enact an annual tax on those who own property in the basin. The assessments are expected to generate nearly $3 million per year, which the agency can use to pay for work or studies as matching dollars for federal grants, Pelath said.
While the idea of taxing property owners has been a thorny subject among lawmakers in the past, last year's floods changed practically everyone's minds, Pelath said.
"We're already paying," he said about the assessment. "The question becomes, do you want to pay for solutions, or do you want to keep paying for problems? That's really what it comes down to."
The state will also appropriate $2.3 million to the agency, more than double the amount it usually contributes, to help fund its work before the assessment kicks in two years from now.
The reorganized commission has several short-term priorities, according to Pelath, a former Indiana House Minority leader who has served as head of the KRBC since January.
• Mitigating issues with the Yellow River, sands from which regularly drift into the Kankakee, exacerbating water-level problems
• Addressing man-made barriers such as abandoned bridges or railroad crossings along the river, which also contribute to high water levels
• Identifying lands that could serve as additional water storage during times of flooding
Other long-term solutions include stabilizing the river's banks, a task the commission completed for a portion of the river in Starke County in 2017, Pelath said.
Residents should not expect results overnight, though, he said.
"It's a very daunting problem," Pelath said. "For everything that needs to be done and would be beneficial for everybody, you're probably looking at [paying] the low-end of nine digits.
"This is 100 years in the making, and it's not going to be fixed in a year."