Officials prepared to break ground Tuesday at Arrowhead Lake in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County near Palos Heights for flood alleviation. They are (from left) Cook County Forest Preserves General Superintendent Arnold Randall; MWRD Commissioner Cam Davis; Palos Heights Mayor Robert Straz; MWRD Chairman of Finance Frank Avila; MWRD President Kari K. Steele; MWRD Vice President Barbara McGowan; MWRD Commissioner Kim Du Buclet; MWRD Commissioner Debra Shore and MWRD Executive Director Brian Perkovich.
Palos Heights residents whose homes are immediately north of Arrowhead Lake are applauding a $1.6 million construction project that will hold back more water during storms and take away federal floodplain designations from their properties.
Ground was broken Tuesday in the forest preserves on the shore of the lake as a heavy rainstorm bore down on about 30 public officials, workers, the media and citizens who stood beneath tents to take part or witness the event.
“We thought this day would never come,” said Doris Tortorici. She and her husband, Phil live near 130th Street and 70th Court and are fed up with a floodplain designation that costs them more than $1,000 per year in extra insurance.
Doris and Phil Tortorici are among dozens of Palos Heights homeowners who are hoping to see federal floodplain designation lifted from their properties soon after completion of the Arrowhead Lake flood control project. Standing behind them Tuesday at the groundbreaking is Cook County Forest Preserves General Superintendent Arnold Randall.
“We’ve been fighting this thing for 25 years,” said Phil of the designation. “We’ve gone to meetings and they’ve said ‘next year, next year, next year.’
The Tortorici home has never flooded, for which they’re grateful, but being in a federally designated floodplain has not only cost them tens of thousands of dollars over the years in insurance premiums but it has meant potential difficulty should they ever try to sell their home.
“This is good,” Doris said about the kick-off to the project.
“It’s about time,” said Phil.
About five blocks north of the Tortoricis, Larry Land lives alongside Navajo Creek at 125th Street and 69th Avenue. He and his wife have worried many times when heavy rainstorms have hit the area.
“It makes us nervous on days like this,” he said.
“The creek flood control has been greatly improved since the early ‘80s when we moved in,” he said. “There was a time when the creek would go over the banks and flow down 125th Street. We were completely surrounded by 2-3 feet of water.”
Once he witnessed flooding so severe that a neighbor had to be taken from home in a boat. But he admits that such an extreme is in the distant past.
“The city redid some culverts under the road that helped a huge amount,” he said. “The city crews come around frequently to clean out the debris that might be blocking downflow. I saw a city guy checking it before I came out this morning. So, that has drastically improved. The creek still goes up, but it goes down fast.”
Introducing Tuesday’s construction launch was Kari K. Steele, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Greater Chicago.
“We are thrilled to be in the position to break ground on this project that will remove 70 structures from the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) floodplain,” she said.
“The existing damn and culvert will be demolished and replaced with a new concrete dam, outlet culvert and spillway. This $1.6 million project also calls for raising and resurfacing portions of the existing bike trail as well as constructing a new trail spur that will reach 131st Street,” Steele said.
The project is expected to be finished before the end of 2019.
Palos Heights Mayor Bob Straz said, “On behalf of all the 70-plus residents who are affected by this, I just want to thank all the jurisdictions involved in pulling this off.
“It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been in office 18 years and this started long before,” he said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the recent Cal-Sag watershed conference and meetings we’ve had over the last 4-5 years where we looked at planning and flooding in the area, and that’s what this all comes down to.”
Cook County Forest Preserves General Superintendent Arnold Randall talked of Arrowhead Lake and the importance of the forest preserve district in general.
“We are over 100 years old, founded in 1914,” he said. “Today the forest preserves of Cook County are the largest forest preserves in the country, over 70,000 acres of land with over 60 million visits each year, home to more than 100 endangered species” (plant life and animal life).
“This lake is one of the more than 40 fishing areas in the forest preserves,” he said about Arrowhead, citing the bluegills, sunfish and large-mouth bass that can be caught there.
Justin Kirk, project engineer, explained to The Regional exactly how the excess water from Arrowhead will be controlled with the new project.
“The existing footprint of the lake is staying the same,” he said. “We’re not doing any excavation to expand the footprint of the lake. What’s actually changing on the site is we’re replacing an existing dam in the north end.
“We’re going to be replacing that dam in its entirety, raising it up about two feet. What that translates into is that when it rains on days like this, the lake fills, but since that dam is going to be two feet higher, it’s going to store more storm water.”
Kirk said that the dam has an outlet culvert that the water flows through. The diameter of the new outlet on the new dam will allow only so much water to pass through at a given time. Combined with the height of the new dam, excess water in Arrowhead Lake will drain more slowly than it does now.
“It (the lake) is going from about 60 acre-feet of storage in its current condition to 100 acre-feet once our project is done. Picture 100 acres of land with a one-foot depth of water,” Kirk offered as strictly an illustration of the quantity.
“A day like this you will see the lake look a little bigger because it’s more full,” he said.
Kirke said the existing damn is easily seen by people using the Tinley Creek recreation trail. The new dam will be, as well.
“The trail goes right across the top. People are going to ride their bikes or walk across it, they’ll see a spillway. Water will just be held back until it can flow out of that culvert. The culvert going through the dam will slowly release the water.”
He echoed MWRD President Steele in mentioning that the Tinley Creek trail will be raised at certain locations so it will flood less often.
Kirke said he’s been involved with the project for the last 6-7 years, from its preliminary stages of design.
“It’s great to see it moving to construction,” he said.
It is anticipated that homeowners in most if not all of the floodplain will see that federal designation removed after the project is complete.
“We are working to get that changed as quickly as possible, so one of the steps we took is providing hydraulic modeling of what the conditions will be after the project is completed,” said Kirke.
“The process is already in review. As soon as the construction is finished, we’ll have to submit as-built drawings showing we constructed the project as we had planned,” he said. “That helps expedite that process to get that mapping changed as soon as possible.”