Low water levels causing problems for boaters
LAKE BARRINGTON – Friends Anita Helaszek, Kate Ulbert and Ulbert’s daughter, Kristen Ulbert, like to water ski three to four times a week along a stretch of the Fox River south of the McHenry dam.
Things have become dicey this summer as prolonged drought conditions have brought Fox Waterway levels down.
“If you wipe out outside of the [channel marker] buoys, you’re going to hurt yourself” from striking bottom, said Helaszek, who lives in far western Lake County.
Despite recent rains, the water along the Fox River and Chain O’ Lakes remains at the low end of normal summer pool, Illinois Department of Natural Resources officials say.
Many who routinely recreate on the waterway, or earn their livelihoods from those who do, say the levels are as low as or lower than they’ve ever seen them mid-season – anywhere from 8 inches to a foot and a half down. And it’s creating hazards and driving traffic down with it.
“Ironically, for the past seven years in a row, the problem has been too much rain and flooding, apart from last year,” said Rob Hardman, president and CEO of Blarney Island and Port O’ Blarney, popular watering holes toward the north end of the Chain, in and near Grass Lake, Antioch.
Hardman noted that many boating-dependent businesses were hoping for a great year last year after summer profits were soaked by flooding and resulting wake restrictions in previous years. But a cold and rainy start clipped profits again.
This summer, profits are getting parched.
“For the second half of June and the first half of July … a lot of people didn’t want to leave their air-conditioned home or car,” Hardman said. “You know it’s too hot and dry when people don’t even want to go out on a boat.”
Just before the rains of late July, the Blarney Island Queen – a large shuttle boat that normally takes about 1,000 customers a week from the channel just south of Grass Lake Road at Port O’ Blarney to Blarney Island – nearly became landlocked.
“We were able to leave, but it was at that edge where if we had lost any more water and had no more rain, we wouldn’t have been able to,” Hardman said.
For those south of the dam, it’s gone past “that edge,” said Ty Quaderer, owner of Barrington Motor Sports Marina. Even the work that ordinarily comes with shallow water-related mishaps, such as repairing dinged propellers and lower unit damage, has dried up, he said.
“Now, nobody’s been going out,” said Quaderer, of Johnsburg.
Meteorologist Amy Seeley of the National Weather Service said official counts put the Chicago area only 4.2 inches of rain down from normal between Jan. 1 and late July. Total rainfall at Chicago O’Hare stood at 15.86 inches July 24, down from the normal of 19.28.
But, she added, some areas nearby are up to 7 or 8 inches below normal.
Quaderer said several of his boat slip renters have pulled their boats from the water because it is too shallow to back off their lifts.
Those venturing out report that the stretch between the Broken Oar in Cary and the lock and dam in McHenry is exceptionally shallow.
“The [channel-marking] buoys are getting narrower and narrower,” boater Thor Forsberg of Barrington said, referring to that stretch of the Fox. “You get these boaters who are crazy out here and they’re getting closer and closer to each other at full speed. So that’s when I call it quits, and as I’m in the process of turning around, I’m hitting bottom.”
In fact, about six crashes had been reported along the lower river this summer by mid-July, although not all may be attributable to shallow depths and narrower channels.
Port Barrington Marina operator Jim Forbes, whose business is at the end of Behan Road east of Crystal Lake, said informed boaters still can safely enjoy the waterway.
“What I tell my customers is to leave my pier with the propeller higher than you normally would because of the low water. Get out into the middle. Then they can put it up on plane, hit the throttle and go,” he said. “If you go north to the locks, I’m telling them I wouldn’t make any turns or pull tubes. Just go straight to the locks and throttle down.”
Illinois Department of Natural Resources hydraulic engineer Rita Lee said the shallow depths along the waterway this summer are the worst she’s witnessed in 12 years.
In late July, the normal flow of water through the Algonquin dam is 350 cubic feet per second, Lee said.
Right after the rains of the fourth week in July, the flow was 246 cfs, she said.
Lockmaster John Palmieri said water levels have been hovering about 8 inches below normal, although Quaderer noted that his floating service dock was on the river bottom in late July, and normally floated just below the lip of his seawall, about a foot and a half above it.
Lee said boaters aren’t the only ones affected. Fish and mussel kills have been reported along the Chain and river this summer. In addition, downstream in Aurora and Elgin, users are dependent on the Fox River for part of their water supply.
And the rains of late July did little to turn the tide.
“The ground is so dry right now that the soil is going to take that rain, and it’s going to adhere to the soils and not run off and get into the rivers,” Lee said. “It’s going to take several days of rain to rehydrate all of that soil.”