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River levels will be lowered to fix a deteriorating Maumee River levee.

Stream of conscience

River work leaves city with a dilemma

Dan Wire, chairman of the Friends of the Rivers, will need to take his boat, the Junkadu, out of the river before city officials lower the rivers downtown.
Photos by Stacey Stumpf | The Journal Gazette
City officials plan on lifting the tainter gate on the Hosey Dam on Monday to lower the river levels downtown in preparation for work on a levee downstream.

On Saturday, despite an extreme drought, participants in Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival’s second RiverGames had plenty of water to splash around in.

On Monday, city officials will yank the figurative plug on the bathtub, lowering the rivers and – if experience holds true – making the rivers uglier and smellier. The lower water levels will not only prevent boaters from enjoying the rivers, but it will also become considerably less appealing to dine along the riverbanks or take a bike ride on the Rivergreenway.

City officials say they need to lower river levels to complete needed repairs on a levee on the northern side of the Maumee River west of the Tecumseh Street Bridge. They also say waiting to make the levee repairs is not an option, and they appear to be right. City Utilities employees soon will send water plunging downriver across the Hosey Dam, near Anthony Boulevard, by raising the “tainter gate,” which partially backs up the Maumee.

After the gate is lifted, the “downtown pool” – the water in the St. Marys, Maumee and St. Joseph rivers between the Hosey Dam and the St. Joseph River Dam and Pumping Station near Johnny Appleseed Park – will drop by about 56 inches in less than 48 hours, according to Dan Wire, chairman of Friends of the Rivers.

Under normal conditions, nine miles of river are available for recreational use near downtown. After the tainter gates are lifted, Wire estimates only about three miles will be usable, and then only to kayakers and canoeists. The pontoon boat that gives rides starting at The Deck at Hall’s Gashouse will be high and dry.

All the recent recommendations from consultants and economic development plans (including Plan-it Allen, the county’s comprehensive land use plan; the Downtown Blueprint and Blueprint Plus plans; as well as the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Vision 2020 plan and the Legacy Fort Wayne committee) call for making recreation on the rivers and development of river corridors a top priority.

But that effort is made more difficult when city leaders purposefully keep the river level low to complete construction projects during the recreational season.

The competing desires – to maintain the river levels for appearance and summer recreation and to lower it for more practical reasons – raise questions about how well the city can realistically use the rivers to its advantage. That question will be more compelling as city officials consider spending $10.5 million in Legacy funds to plan and implement a riverfront development project.

“We may need to rethink how we do construction projects,” Wire said. “I understand the need to have the river down. The question is are we going to burden taxpayers so that people can recreate on the rivers or do we just say, ‘Forget about boating.’ We have to really think about what we want from our rivers.”

Competing interests

Lowering the river level decreases the costs of construction and repair. It decreases the likelihood that contractors working on building projects in or near the rivers will need to build cofferdams – temporary enclosures to keep water out during construction – to complete their work.

It could double the cost of some projects if the city can’t lower the river levels, said Frank Suarez, city spokesman. “It’s a fine line to deal with,” he said. “We certainly know people like to use the rivers, but when you have infrastructure on the river and an unexpected problem comes up, you have to deal with it. It’s one of the things you have to deal with when you have three rivers. And when you’re dealing with tax dollars, you have to balance that.”

But the city is ignoring its own policy when it comes to maintaining the river’s recreational water levels downtown. A resolution adopted by the Board of Public Works in 2007 calls for keeping the tainter gate closed as much as possible during the summer recreation season, which state guidelines designate as April 15 to Oct. 15.

“We’ve got things – businesses – that are bringing people down to the rivers that have never seen the rivers before. And what do we want them to see?” asked Tim Hall, co-owner of Fort Wayne Outfitters and Bike Depot. “I don’t think the city takes that seriously enough. I don’t think they even consider it.”

Hall’s business, located along the Rivergreenway just west of the Wells Street Bridge, includes renting canoes and kayaks. Low river levels hurt his business, he said.

“What do we have that makes us a unique draw to people?” Hall asked. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s slapping us in the head. It’s our rivers. And we’re not doing enough to take advantage of them. We’ve been in business for five years, and everyone has come back with a positive experience. It’s a tremendous asset that we have, and we’re not taking advantage of it. There are numerous communities that build artificial rivers to have waterfront attractions and we’ve got three of them!”

Development challenges

The levee repair project is not optional, and the city had little say on its timing. The city couldn’t complete the project earlier because the proposed repair required approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps is also requiring the city to complete the repairs before the end of the year.

“Certainly it’s the right project and it’s a needed project,” said Mary Jane Slaton, a City Utilities program manager. “It protects homes from flooding and ensures those homes stay out of the flood plain.”

Unfortunately, the levee repair project is not the first instance in which the city has opted to drain the downtown pool during the recreation season for a construction project.

“In the last 36 months we have lost more than 90 days out of the recreational season,” Wire said.

Clearly, a more strategic approach to scheduling construction projects to decrease inconvenience for residents wanting to take advantage of the rivers is needed.

But the larger question remains the sometimes conflicting interests between riverfront development and protecting the community from flooding.

To be of any value, the proposed riverfront development study will need to address the larger question of how the city can transform the rivers into an economic development asset despite the limitations created by the federally mandated flood-control projects.

Stacey Stumpf is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.