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Drought drains Illinois rivers of recreational potential

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012 10:28 a.m. CDT

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CHICAGO (MCT) — In an old garage along the Vermilion River, 300 life jackets and 300 paddles have been stacked neatly, collecting dust since May. Normally the equipment would be riding the whitewater with thrill-seekers, but a hot and extremely dry summer has reduced rushing rapids to pools of water among rock beds that are cracked and baking in the summer sun.

Vermillion River Rafting owners Bob and Ruth Herbst, who have been running trips from their Oglesby, Ill., home for 17 years, said they’ve never seen the river so desolate. The family business normally serves about 4,000 people from May to the end of July, but this year it served fewer than 1,100 customers before shutting down in May.

“This is the driest I’ve ever seen it,” said Ruth Herbst, 68, who has lived in the area her entire life. “There are places you can walk from one end of the river to the other without getting your feet wet.”

The Herbsts said they field 20 to 30 phone calls every morning from people looking for a trip down the river but have been forced to turn them away.

Above-average temperatures and little to no precipitation have left the state’s rivers far below their normal levels for this time of year, said Arlan Juhl, water resources director for the state Department of Natural Resources. Many are as low as they’d normally be in late September. Some, such as the Illinois, Fox and Kankakee rivers, are at threshold levels deemed critical to sustaining their aquatic habitats for fish, mussels and possibly plants, he said.

While it’s hard to quantify how far below average Illinois’ river levels are as a whole, Juhl said it’s safe to say all are lower than normal.

For example, the Des Plaines River normally flows at about 131 cubic feet per second this time of year but is currently flowing at 68 cubic feet per second, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.

The last time Juhl remembers levels so low was in 1988, he said, but that year’s drought effects weren’t visible until late summer. If 2012 continues without normal precipitation, he said, the outlook is grim.

“Unless there’s some sudden change in rainfall, the projection is severe,” Juhl said. “We’re rapidly approaching 1988’s drought. We haven’t seen anything like this in a long time.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, at least 70 percent of the state is facing “extreme” drought conditions — only one category away from “exceptional,” or the most severe category.

July rains in the northern portion of the state did little to help.

Villa Park resident Liz Fritz has been swimming, boating and floating in the Fox River since she was a little girl, and she said recently she couldn’t remember the water ever being so shallow.

“The water’s so low right now, the boat scrapes the ground,” said Fritz, 25. “I have to walk out to the middle of the river to test it to see if we can bring our boat out today.”

Fritz gathered with family friends at Ferson Creek Park in St. Charles for an afternoon picnic. Children plucked clams off of the sandy beach, an area hidden underwater when river levels are normal, Fritz said.

“This isn’t what we’re used to,” she said. “There’s barely a current.”

Fox River Canoe & Kayak co-owner Beth Peterson said she had to cancel the southernmost of their three trips earlier this summer. The run from Geneva to North Aurora was too rocky and dangerous for boats.

“The water down there only comes up to the ducks’ knees,” Peterson said. “We’ve offered people the northern trip, but some don’t want to go up that far.”

Two hours south along the Kankakee River, Reed’s Canoe Trips owner Jim Reed said his business is hurting this year too. The most popular trip of the three he runs along the river is closed because of shallow water. The other two are open, but the lack of water has interest and revenue down, he said.

“The river’s still and shallow, and a lot of times people have to get out and walk their canoe 50 to 100 yards,” Reed said. “No one likes to canoe when you have to walk and drag.”

Hot weather and shallow rivers are also affecting the bottom line for the summer fishing season, Dundee Marathon Bait Shop owner Jay Pastakia said. Business is down about 8 percent this year for his East Dundee shop along the Fox River, he said.

“The warm water has the fish going deeper, making them harder for fisherman to catch,” Pastakia said. “It’s so hot; no one wants to go sit out there and try to catch fish that aren’t biting.”

Recreational fisherman Tim Goodman said many who practice catch-and-release tactics are cautious when fishing in these conditions because the animals are already stressed by the warmer waters.

“With low water and oxygen levels, it’s important to release the fish quickly after catching them so you don’t cause any undue stress,” said Goodman, who lives just south of Rockford. “We’re trying to handle fish more carefully so they’re not dying post-release.”

Goodman said the Kishwaukee River is one of his usual fishing spots, but shallow waters now allow only wade-in fishing. It’s not deep enough to boat or kayak, he said.

The southern portion of the state is suffering most — which doesn’t help the Herbsts because the Vermilion River runs south to north. The nine-mile stretch of the river that comprises their rafting trip is normally about 4 feet high and running on average about 404 cubic feet per second this time of year. This week, its deepest points measure about 1 foot, and it’s flowing at 8.5 cubic feet per second — and in some places is completely dried up, said Bob Herbst, 74. The rocky pools of remaining water feel like a warm bath, Ruth Herbst said.

Though they are a bit depressed, a positive attitude and a playful relationship are getting the Herbsts through a financially tight summer. Bob Herbst said they usually bring in about $80,000 a summer in profits to help subsidize their retirement. This year they came in just under $20,000.

“We won’t be going on any vacations this year,” he said.

With this summer a bust, all they can do is look to the future.

“Hopefully we’ll get a fresh start next year with snow and spring rain,” he said. “Until then, we’ll keep checking our rain gauge every morning.”

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