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Holm v. Kodat and the Current State of Illinois Water Access Law

no trespassing sign on chain link fenceScott Hays, President, IPC

Illinois paddlers have been dismayed by the recently released Holm v. Kodat decision of the Illinois Supreme Court (175 NE 3d 119 – Ill: Supreme Court 2021 to read the decision, click here). Importantly, the ruling didn’t change anything that hasn’t been established law in Illinois for many decades. Rather it upheld existing Illinois law that owners of property along the banks of “non-navigable” Illinois rivers (the “riparian corridor”) also own the property rights on the river surface itself out to the midpoint of the river. If one owner owns property on both sides, they in fact “own” that section of the entire width of the river and those who paddle through their “private property” can legally be found guilty of trespass.  The issue in Holm hinged on the rights of one riparian owner – Mr. Kodat – to block river access by another riparian owner – the Plaintiff Holm – on a “non-navigable river” in Illinois – the Mazon.

While Holm v. Kodat changes nothing about water rights and access law, it has focused greater attention on the issue and raised the ire of many paddlers, many of whom (understandably) have only a vague understanding of what Illinois river access law actually is. This has naturally drawn attention to the current status of laws affecting Illinois rivers (pardon the pun).  


Under federal law, when a state was admitted to the Union it also became the owner of the bodies of water within its borders that were navigable for interstate commerce “for the public benefit of its citizens.” “Public benefit” sounds pretty good, but then the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) clarifies that: “Under Illinois law the IDNR was given the responsibility of determining what bodies of water within the State are to be designated as a public body of water (i.e. navigable for commerce).” (Rivers, Lakes and Streams Act, 615 ILCS 5/5)

Using a standard of “navigability”, the IDNR has therefore determined which waterways would be public and which would not be. IDNR lists the “navigable” and therefore “public” waters of Illinois here:


The net result of this listing is that of the 87,110 miles of rivers and streams in Illinois (not counting the 880 miles of river Illinois is bordered by), only approximately 30 rivers (or portions thereof) are classified as navigable. So hey, if your river – or one you’d like to paddle – is listed, paddle away! Don’t even bother reading on!

If not – which is most paddleable rivers in Illinois – then your river is unfortunately a “non-navigable” and therefore “non-public” river. As mentioned above, riparian owners who own property along any “non-navigable” river “own” the property out to the centerline of the river and by extension, those who own property on both banks along a stretch of river also “own” that stretch of river as their private property. As a practical matter, paddlers heading downriver (or upriver) who cross into this private property can legally be found guilty of trespass.  Happily, most riparian owners on most of our rivers don’t often accuse paddlers of trespass. Yet this creates an uneasy alliance that sometimes cracks, as in the recent DuPage River issue or more recently in Holm v. Kodat. 

The Court goes on to explain:

This court has long recognized that “riparian rights apply to all flowing streams whether navigable or non-navigable, but with respect to navigable streams, the right of the riparian owner is subject to a public easement to use the river for navigation purposes.” A waterway is navigable and subject to a public easement if it naturally, by customary modes of transportation, is “of sufficient depth to afford a channel for use for commerce”. If, however, the waterway is nonnavigable, the riparian owner owns “the bed of the stream” absolutely, free from any burdens in favor of the public.” Here, it is undisputed that the Mazon River is a nonnavigable river and, therefore, has no public easement for access. (¶ 29&30)


“Navigability” then is a key factor in determining whether a river could be considered public or private, so let’s review how Illinois defines navigability.

Here, the Illinois Supreme Court follows a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, which states that

streams or lakes which are navigable in fact must be regarded as navigable in law; they are navigable in fact when they are used or susceptible of being used, in their natural and ordinary condition as highways for commerce, over which trade and travel on water are or may be conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water. (United States v. Holt State Bank, 270 U.S.49 (1926)

Of course, paddling a canoe or kayak could be considered “customary” and certainly counts as a “mode of travel on water.” Paddlers can easily navigate several rivers or streams across our state. Nonetheless, for our purposes here we must stick to the law which rules out any common-sense understanding that paddlers may choose to apply regarding the concept of “navigability.”

In the case of Hubbard v. Bell (1870), the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a “pleasure boat test” of navigability, stating: “that it was not every small creek in which a fishing skiff or gunning canoe can be made to float at high water, which is deemed navigable. In order to have this character, it must be navigable to some purpose useful to trade or agriculture.” (Hubbard v. Bell, 54 Ill. 110.)

Never mind that this dates to 1870. This mindset was then more recently updated in 1905:

…A stream is navigable in fact only where it affords a channel for useful commerce and of practical utility to the public as such. The fact that there is water enough in places for row boats or small launches answering practically the same purpose, or that hunters and fisherman pass over the water with boats ordinarily used for that purpose, does not render the waters navigable. Schulte v. Warren, 218 III. 108 (1905).

All of this was reiterated and put even more bluntly by the Appellate Court in Holm v. Kodat: “[I]t is irrelevant, for purposes of determining navigability in fact, that the Mazon River can support kayaks.” (2021 IL App (3d) 200164, ¶ 28).

So according to current Illinois law, a river isn’t “navigable” even if paddlers can actually navigate it by kayaks, row boats, small launches, or the “ordinary boats of hunters and fisherman.” Furthermore, a canoe or kayak is apparently not “a customary mode of travel on water.” OK then. One is naturally left curious about whether our courts feel that those who operate commercial boat rental liveries on rivers for the enjoyment of the public are actually engaged in “some purpose useful to trade,” “useful commerce,” or are in fact doing anything of “practical utility to the public” at all. But no matter, they are nonetheless non-navigable rivers and therefore private unless the river can handle barges or steamships or some other “useful commerce” of that sort.  


One point made by Holm in Holm v. Kodat is that an earlier Illinois Supreme Court ruling known as “Beacham” should apply here (Beacham v. Lake Zurich Property Owners Ass’n, 123 Ill. 2d 227, 1988). Beacham resolved a dispute among riparian owners on Lake Zurich in favor of all lakefront property owners having access to the entire surface of Lake Zurich, which was a “non-navigable” body of water, like the Mazon River. But the Illinois Supremes pointed out for us that while the plaintiff (Holm) argued that there isn’t a meaningful difference between rivers and lakes for the paddling community:

We disagree. A lake is essentially a flat expanse of relatively still water…. In contrast, streams and rivers can have widely varying topographical features and characteristics, including differing currents, depth, and width that may change with the seasons. Naturally, then, a riparian owner’s use of a lake will likely differ from a riparian owner’s use of a river or stream…. a nonnavigable lake is sufficiently distinct from a nonnavigable river or stream to render Beacham inapplicable. (¶ 38)

Full disclosure: I am a riparian property owner (who loves it when Sangamon River paddlers pass by the part of the river I “own”). Like many of us, I have paddled both rivers and lakes. While I have noted the distinction that lakes are generally big and round and rivers are long and narrow, I don’t actually “use” them any differently. But no matter. The Supremes find them to be “sufficiently distinct” so that’s that.

In fairness, the Supremes seem empathetic to the plight of paddlers:

In closing, we acknowledge plaintiffs’ advancement of public policy arguments in favor of promoting the recreational use of nonnavigable streams and rivers in Illinois…. Because the majority of waterways in Illinois are nonnavigable, plaintiffs urge this court to adopt a legal rule granting a riparian owner on a nonnavigable stream or river a right to use the entire length of that waterway to promote its reasonable recreational use. (¶ 55)

Yet, in their Conclusion, they state:

For the foregoing reasons, we decline plaintiffs’ request to hold that they have a right, as riparian owners on the nonnavigable Mazon River, to use the entire length of that waterway to cross the property of other riparian owners without their permission. (¶ 58)

In the end, our Justices clearly had an opportunity to more closely scrutinize and update our anachronistic Illinois water law with a ruling that could have favored Holmes by extending their own Beacham decision regarding lakes to rivers, but chose not to.

So what now?


The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which adheres to Illinois law and rulings of the Illinois Supreme Court, has for some time offered two legal means of opening up paddlers’ rights on non-navigable rivers under current Illinois water law.

First, as the Court points out, other riparian owners do not have a right “to use the entire length of that waterway to cross the property of other riparian owners without their permission.” So, one means of gaining access to rivers is to ask permission.

Of course, for a stretch of river, those who wish to paddle it would need to seek permission from every riparian owner along that route. This was recently done at significant effort by the Paddle the Kish organization on the Kishwaukee River. But if one owner fails to grant permission, the success of this kind of effort could be threatened. Nonetheless, IPC can share legal documents (shared with us by “Paddle the Kish”) which were created so that riparian property owners can clarify their intent to grant such permission, should they wish to do so.

Alternatively, anyone can petition the IDNR to add their river to the navigable rivers list. According to the Illinois Administrative Code, “any person may petition for an order to add a body of water to the list when it can be shown that the candidate is or was navigable and is open or dedicated to public use.” (17 ILL. ADM. CODE CH. I, SEC. 3704.40).

The petition has to name the body of water, where it is, include a statement on its past or present navigability, and/or statements of people living along the river that “it is common knowledge that the body of water has always been open to public use” along with other information that make it rather the equivalent of the Wizard telling Dorothy to report back with the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. However, IDNR wants you to know that getting that broom is at least theoretically possible (as Dorothy made clear – in a work of fiction).


Although the Holm decision reiterates and therefore strengthens and clarifies Illinois water law, two things from the Holm decision point to the path ahead for our paddling community. First, the unanimous opinion clearly states:

In our view, the legislature is the best venue to consider plaintiffs’ request for the creation of a new public policy on riparian rights for nonnavigable rivers and streams in Illinois, which constitute the majority of waterways in this state. As the parties’ arguments and the amicus curiae briefs demonstrate, plaintiffs’ request for a new public policy involves significant competing interests that we believe the General Assembly is better equipped to address. (¶ 56)

Which means that – although one could argue that resolving disputes among competing interests is what courts are for – these Justices certainly don’t want to get involved in resolving these “significant” competing interests. So they’re letting the law stand and in so many words, telling the paddling community, “Go ask your Mother.”

In addition, Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr. writes in a specially concurring opinion signed onto by Chief Justice Anne Burke:

I believe it is time for Illinois to move away from its common law that limits the use of nonnavigable lakes, rivers, and streams to riparian landowners and move to the recreational navigation doctrine, so that all waterways are available to the public for recreational use…. I concur in the result reached in today’s opinion, but I encourage the legislature to promulgate legislation so that the state’s nonnavigable lakes, rivers, and streams are not limited to use by riparian landowners but are available to the public for recreational use. (¶ 61, 81)

Finally, going back to a 1998 report that unfortunately has remained unpublished, entitled: “Water Law and Recreational Access”, the IDNR concluded that:

As more and more recreators use Illinois streams, their currently limited legal right to use non-public streams will at some time be challenged. When that challenge comes, regardless of how it comes, increasing the facilities and information that provide actual access to Illinois’ public and public use waters will have built a broader constituency to support further expansion of the public’s access rights. Building and informing this constituency is essential to affect the change in river access rights that recreators and conservationists desire.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is precisely the legacy that we here at the Illinois Paddling Council wish to continue. Stay tuned…


Illinois Supreme Court affirms private property owner’s rights to “non-navigable” rivers

No Trespassing Image - Copy

In issuing their opinion in Holm v. Kodat today the Illinois Supreme Court once again affirmed the rights of a riparian owner over the rights of a paddler on Illinois’ “non-navigable” rivers. According to the decision, paddlers on non-navigable streams can be found guilty of trespass for paddling on rivers without explicitly granted property owner permission.

Read the full decision attached.

Yet, for a slightly hopeful assessment pointing to a legislative solution, focus on paragraph 56, near the end of the decision and on the “Specially concurring” opinion written by Justice P. Scott Neville, Jr. and signed on to by Chief Justice Anne M. Burke.

It looks like the paddling community has it’s work cut out for us, folks. Stay tuned for more…

Holm v. Kodat, 2022 IL 127511

Illinois Paddling Council’s Position Statement on Public Waterways

As the statewide consortium of paddle enthusiasts and regional paddling organizations, the Illinois Paddling Council (IPC) supports all paddlers in their enjoyment of the rivers and lakes of Illinois, a state which is blessed by more miles of paddleable rivers than any other state.  

To that end, we consistently support efforts by public agencies and others to improve paddle craft access to bodies of water by creating kayak/canoe launches on public properties and support the IDNR’s Boat Access Area Development grant program and other similar programs.  

While the IPC will continue to advance access to Illinois rivers by all, the IPC also recognizes that under current Illinois law, riverfront property owners own the property to the centerline of the river. This means that even when using public access points to enter a river, paddlers often must briefly pass through privately held lands. We greatly appreciate property owners who support the paddling community by granting access – or at least not actively thwarting – the passage of paddle craft through their land. In turn, those who use Illinois rivers need to recognize the privilege they have been granted in passing through private land. Landowners are placing a lot of faith in paddlers by allowing us on their property.  We have a responsibility and obligation to pass peacefully, without trespassing, on private lands and always practice ‘leave no trace,’ whether on private or public land. 

The IPC recognizes that a sometimes-unspoken agreement has existed for quite some time between paddlers and those who own the lands through which paddlers seek to paddle. This agreement is easily shattered by the willful acts of some who abuse the landowner’s faith, as the DuPage issue clearly demonstrates.  

The IPC understands the challenges facing all interested parties involved in the DuPage River situation, including the IDNR, private property owners, local public agencies, local businesses, water enthusiasts, and others. In this case, the IPC clearly recognizes the responsibility water enthusiasts must have when using bodies of water, including but not limited to, the obligation not to litter or improperly dispose of garbage and waste, to refrain from noise pollution associated with loud music, and to limit ingress and egress to public lands only. 

As the DuPage River issue works to its conclusion, which we certainly hope will include keeping this river (and many others) accessible to water enthusiasts, our plea is to the paddling and tubing community not to trespass on private lands and to ‘leave no trace’ as they pass through these private and public lands. We greatly appreciate all riparian landowners who allow us on their property.  Our request to riverfront property owners is that they continue to show their faith in responsible members of the watersport community and continue the practice of looking supportively on those who wish to peacefully and briefly enjoy the resource to which they have been provided access. 

Comments on Illinois Water Plan

By Professor Eric Freyfogle

I would like to offer, in brief form, a legal commentary on the public’s existing rights to make use of Illinois waterways and on the state’s need to do a better job recognizing and respecting these public rights. The first step for the state, as I say below, is to do what it has to my knowledge never done: to undertake a full review of the relevant law to grasp the exact scope of public rights and the very limited ability of the state to constrict those public rights. I write as a long-time Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law who has specialized for decades in property and natural resources law and who has written at length on these subjects, including public rights in waterways. I would be happy to meet with DNR officials or others if it would seem helpful and to offer my legal views at far greater length if there is receptivity to them.

In very brief form, my main conclusions are the following (my legal points, of course, are not here supported):

First, the issue of public rights to use waterways is far more legally complex than commonly understood. Public rights are not simply set by the Illinois definition of navigability, nor are they set by any administrative action of the DNR or other executive body. Public rights emerge out of the interaction of quite a number of bodies of federal and state law. The state law of navigability is one of them, but only one. (The lead rulings here are all well over a century old, and of uncertain strength today.) Federal law plays a role through the public trust doctrine, under which Illinois took title to the lands beneath navigable waters (when it entered the union) subject to the already existing public rights to use them. All such waterways were and remain “forever free” to public use under the original Northwest Ordinance, reenacted as a still- binding federal statute by the first Congress. The federal navigation servitude also comes into play, protecting public rights. And there is more. Illinois like other states has the legal power to expand public access to waterways. It has not done so. It has no power, however, to curtail these public rights to the extent that they are protected by federal law.

Second and related, whether or not DNR or another administrative body designates a waterway or waterway segment as navigable is of no real legal significance. The public holds rights on its own; these rights do not derive from, and are not dependent on, anything that DNR does or does not do. So far as I know, no state law authorizes DNR to expand public rights beyond those guaranteed by federal law. It certainly has no power to curtail federally guaranteed rights. DNR does have certain authority to regulate uses of waters in the public interest, but that authority does not extend to eliminating rights—exactly the evil that the public trust doctrine, the Northwest Ordinance (as re-enacted), and the Navigation Servitude are all intended to forestall. Its power to regulate public property is akin to the rights various public bodies have to regulate uses of private property. DNR does not have the power, through any rulemaking process or otherwise, to decide on its own which waterways will be deemed navigable and which will not..

Third, so far as I know, the state AG has never issued a legal ruling that covers the topic of public rights in anything like its full complexity. The ruling that DNR commonly cites deals with a tangential issue and, as a quick glance at it shows, gives no thought to the bulk of the bodies of relevant law. I attempted to get Mr. Marc Miller, when DNR director, to seek a guiding ruling from the AG’s office, but to no avail. As I told him then, and repeat now, I’m prepared to draft such a legal review if it would be studied seriously by state lawyers in a position to take action.

Finally, it is my view that, in combination, the various sources of federal and state law that protect longstanding public rights to use waterways empower citizens to make use of any waterway that is navigable in fact during any reasonable period of the year. That use includes travel by canoe, a use that was often, when Illinois entered the Union, a commercial use (as well as recreational) and that is a commercial use today given the actions of canoe outfitters and the like. (I don’t mean to suggest that public uses are limited to commercial activities.) Public rights are not dependent on any longstanding public uses of waterways, although such patterns of use can certainly provide evidence of navigability in fact. Public rights, as the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear, are a form of public property and deserve protection that is just as strong as any protection for private property. Further, any obstruction of a public “highway,” including a navigable waterway, is a per se public nuisance under Illinois law. Under old precedent (the value of which today is unclear), any member of the public can use “self help” to abate a public nuisance, meaning can rip out any barrier that blocks a public route just as a person could remove a barrier to a public road. There is also a right to travel onto private land as minimally needed to avoid waterway obstacles.

It has been my sense over the years that DNR officers (and law enforcement generally) have been far too inclined to resolve all doubts about public rights in favor of private landowners. There is, I believe, no justification for this, in law or policy. Public rights are a form of property and deserve equal protection. There are and will always be uncertainties about which waterways are navigable in fact and thus subject to the public’s property right (easement) to use them. When they arise, such disputes should be handled like all disputes between two parties that claim conflicting property rights: they should be left to the parties to work out as a civil dispute, in court if needed. It is inappropriate for law enforcement officials to take the side of private landowners as they so often have done. It is certainly wrong to arrest a boater when the navigability in fact of a waterway is at all in doubt.

Thanks for taking time to consider my comments. I do hope that this long-delayed and much-needed study of Illinois water law in all its aspects will lead state lawyers, finally, to give the issue of public rights the attention it deserves.

The Newest Best Tactic for Reaching the Un-Reachables

Logo of Water Sports FoundationA small non-profit is making bold moves to reduce senseless paddlesports casualties

For more than five years, I’ve been trying to learn exactly how so many people perish while enjoying paddlesports.  According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2019 Recreational Boating Statistics report, 613 Americans died while boating.  Of them, 167 died while participating in canoeing, kayaking, standup-paddleboarding, row-boating and on inflatables.  While overall boating deaths have declined for three straight years, paddlesports deaths have increased!  

By comparison, paddlesports doesn’t involve high rates of speed, spinning propellers, dangerous carbon monoxide or flammable fluids like its recreational powerboat cousin, yet horrifically, nearly one-out-of-every-three boating deaths are paddlers. 

With the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Water Sports Foundation determined that, of paddlesports deaths, nearly 75% of paddlers had less than 100 hours of experience (when level of experience was known) and the figure remains just below 45% for deaths where the paddler had less than 10 hours of experience.  

This information supports the theory that the majority of paddlesports accidents and deaths occur with paddlers who have very little paddling experience.  It makes sense, right?  More experienced paddlers understand the inherent risks involved in paddlesports and they mitigate them.   It’s probably also true that, in general, more experienced paddlers visit paddlesports pro shops, are members of paddling clubs and enjoy paddlesports media content. 

But newcomers to the sport who have not yet joined a club or subscribed to paddlesports content are nearly impossible to reach.   In fact, one recreational boating safety specialist refers to them as the “un-reachables.”

Over the past ten years, paddlesports has seen explosive growth, especially in kayaking and stand-up-paddleboarding.  According to the Outdoor Foundation’s most recent Outdoor Participation Report, in 2018, 34.9 million Americans participated in paddlesports.  This figure represents a 26.9% increase over 2010 participants, which were measured at 27.5 million.  

Much of this growth has been fueled by relatively inexpensive kayaks and SUP’s being sold through discount big box and club stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Tractor Supply, Walmart, Sam’s Club and Costco, just to name a few.  

Earlier in the decade, as manufacturers found ways to mass-produce kayaks at low price points, the big box and club stores saw an opportunity to cash-in by selling them.  It’s not absurd to think that many of these purchases were made on an impulse decision to buy and no research was involved.  

The problem is that millions of new paddlesports participants were fed onto our waterways each year with no instruction on safety such as, understanding the U.S. Coast Guard carriage requirements including the need for an approved life jacket, the importance of taking a safe paddling course or, simply understanding the inherent risks of paddlesports. 

For more than ten years the Water Sports Foundation (WSF) has been a recreational boating safety outreach partner with the U.S. Coast Guard and since 2011, the WSF has received more than seven million dollars in non-profit federal grants.  The funding is specifically designed for outreach campaigns that are designed to increase awareness of safer boating and paddling practices.  During the period, nearly 200 video PSA’s were developed and distributed by America’s most popular boating and paddling media companies producing nearly one billion media impressions. 

Most recently, the WSF embarked on a new safety crusade to invite executives of America’s top retailers to join the conversation on paddlesports safety.  On June 8, 2020, forty-four letters were sent to top executives and board of directors’ members of ten of the nation’s largest re-sellers of recreational paddlesports equipment including stores that you recently shopped.  They include Academy Sports & Outdoors, Bass Pro Shops, BJ’s Wholesale, Cabela’s, Costco Wholesale, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dunham’s Athleisure, Sam’s Club, Tractor Supply, and Walmart.

The letter was co-signed by five independent recreational safety organizations including the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA), BoatUS, the American Canoe Association (ACA), the Life Jacket Association, and the WSF.   

The letter includes a supporting quote from Verne Gifford, U.S. Coast Guard Office of Recreational Boating Safety Division Chief who said, “Our direct-to-consumer outreach campaigns are changing the boating culture and in recent years they’ve helped to reduce the number of fatalities, but newcomers to paddling who have not yet joined a club, an association or subscribed to paddle sports content are very difficult to reach. Having retail partners that are willing to help inform new paddlers of basic safety knowledge would be extremely helpful for our continuing efforts to reduce casualties.” 

The letter goes on to share details on the number of America’s paddlesports deaths and then encourages the retailer to join the safety conversation and to help reduce senseless deaths.  See the entire letter on Facebook.com.

Results of the effort are not yet compiled as tracking notifications of delivery have only recently been received.  The WSF has high hopes that one day, representatives of the world’s largest kayak and SUP retail establishments will get involved and help develop solutions that avoid senseless paddlesports deaths.  The campaign’s internal motto is “Repeat Customers are Good for Business!”  With some luck and a little help from others, perhaps this will be the year that the trend in paddlesports deaths will be reversed.

For more information or to join the fight to reduce senseless paddlesports casualties, please contact Jim Emmons, Non-profit Outreach Grants Director at the Water Sports Foundation, 407-719-8062.


Federal Lawsuit Filed to Force Dynegy to Clean Up Toxic Pollution of Vermilion River

Federal Lawsuit Filed to Force Dynegy to Clean Up Toxic Pollution of Vermilion River
Recent Video Documents Continued Coal Ash Contamination of Illinois’ Only National Scenic River

Contact: Jenny Cassel, Earthjustice, jcassel@earthjustice.org or 215.717.4525
Andrew Rehn, Prairie Rivers Network, arehn@prairierivers.org or 217.344.2371 x 208

May 30, 2018 (Urbana, Illinois) — Prairie Rivers Network, represented by Earthjustice, today filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois to force Dynegy to clean up toxic coal ash dumps that are leaching harmful pollution into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois’ only National Scenic River. Newly-released videodocuments the pollution at issue in the lawsuit, which argues that Dynegy is violating the Clean Water Act. The pollution has tainted the river with visible orange, purple, and rust-colored toxic residue.

“Dynegy left a toxic mess on the banks of one of Illinois’ most beautiful rivers, and has done nothing to stop the dangerous, illegal pollution from fouling waters enjoyed by countless families who kayak, tube, canoe, and even swim in the river. Dynegy has left us no choice but to sue,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Cassel, who represents Prairie Rivers Network.

The pollution is leaching from coal ash generated at Dynegy’s now retired coal-fired power plant, the Vermilion Power Station. For decades, the ash left over from burning coal at the plant was dumped irresponsibly into unlined ponds that together run approximately a half-mile along the river. Coal ash contains a slew of dangerous pollutants that are linked to cancer, heart disease, and strokes, as well as lifelong brain damage for children. Sampling from the river found a “toxic soup” including arsenic, barium, boron, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and sulfate. Concentrations of boron and sulfate – primary indicators of coal ash contamination – were repeatedly found in groundwater at the site above levels deemed safe by Illinois and U.S. EPA.

“We have a rare jewel in our midst. My brothers and I learned how to swim in that river and spent countless hours exploring it. Over the years, my wife and I have introduced our children, grandchildren, and extended family to the river to enjoy the beauty, peace, and excitement of being outdoors. We must work together to see that this coal ash problem is solved safely,” said local resident Mike Camp from nearby Collison, who grew up along the river and in sixty-four years has never lived more than two miles away from it.

American Rivers recently named the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River one of the ten most endangered rivers in the United States due to the coal ash contamination. The Vermilion County Board has twice unanimously passed resolutions asking Dynegy to clean up the mess.

The river and its banks are popular for kayaking, other boating, tubing and hiking, with thousands of visitors each year. The Middle Fork runs through Kickapoo State Park, which gets over one million visitors each year.

“As you travel along the river, one minute you are enjoying spectacular natural beauty and the next you’re looking at unsightly chemicals leaching into the water. It’s jarring. It’s bad for the local community and the wildlife—including several endangered species—associated with the river. Dynegy is jeopardizing the local jobs and the economy that depend on visitors who value the river for recreation. No one wants to swim or boat in toxic soup. Dynegy should use some of the money they made when they ran the plant to clean it up. They’re the ones who chose not to safely dispose of the coal ash,” said Rob Kanter, a naturalist and writer who serves on the Board of Prairie Rivers Network.

Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt is proposing to gut the protections for coal ash pollution nationwide, even as evidence mounts that coal ash dumps such as those at the closed Vermilion power plant are leaching dangerous chemicals into rivers, lakes, and groundwater. Even absent strong federal protections for legacy coal ash sites, however, Dynegy still must comply with environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act.

According to today’s lawsuit filed by Prairie Rivers Network, Dynegy has been discharging without a proper permit and in violation of Illinois environmental and health standards for years. Prairie Rivers Network will ask the court to order Dynegy to “take all actions necessary” to stop the illegal pollution that is being discharged to the Middle Fork, and to pay penalties to the United States Treasury of up to $53,484 per day for each day over the last five years that Dynegy has violated the Clean Water Act.

The Middle Fork and its surrounding area host twenty threatened or endangered species, fifty-seven types of fish, forty-six different mammal species, and two hundred seventy different bird species. The river is home to state-endangered Blue Breast Darter and several species of rare, threatened, and endangered mussels. The American bald eagle, river otter, and wild turkey have returned to the area, sharing their habitat with mink, turtles, Great Blue Heron and other species.


Cheap Pork or Clean Rivers

By Don Mueggenborg

Spoon River

Most of us like a pork sausage with pancakes, or a slice of bacon with eggs (or almost everything). I enjoyed a pork roast at Christmas.

Since we are the Illinois Paddling Council, I can assume that most of the people reading this are paddlers.   We all enjoy a nice summer paddle on our favorite river (and almost any river I paddle is my favorite at that time).

At one time (and maybe it is still an annual event), Bob Evans invited people to paddle to his farm and enjoy his famous sausages. (Now that is a great way to enjoy both!)

If the price of pork is kept low, we may eat more. This is what the pork producers want. (Of course, their profits will grow as we eat more.)

In order to cut the cost of hog production and make more profits, the pork producers are threatening our rivers.

A three-page article in the Chicago Tribune (Dec 28, 2016) exposes the threat to our rivers.

Pork producers have been building mega-hog farms. The one mentioned in the Tribune article is for 20,000 hogs. No, I did not put in an extra zero.

Besides a lot of bacon, 20,000 hogs produce an awful lot of waste products. This is stored in concrete bunkers, eventually dried, and becomes fertilizer. In the meantime, it produces an unbearable stench.

Nearby wells and streams are threatened with pollution.

If one of the holding bunkers should rupture, be damaged in a tornado, overflow due to heavy rains, millions of gallons of toxic sludge will be set free (it has happened a few years back).

It will flow into our rivers, killing fish, and making the waters unfit to paddle on.

The closest river to the proposed mega-hog farm mentioned by the Tribune is the Spoon River, which flows west and south of Peoria into the Illinois River.

The Spoon is called by some the “Grand Canyon of Illinois” for its colorful red and yellow high clay banks. It is a river that is fun to paddle and was the site of a race I looked forward to for years. It is probably best known for the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.

ACTION TIME – the Illinois Department of Agriculture apparently has limited jurisdiction according to the article – so – IT IS TIME TO WRITE, EMAIL, CALL our state senators and representatives. Urge them to pass laws that will safeguard our rivers.

I will pay a little more for my spareribs, bacon, and sausages, to save our rivers.


Congratulations To The Friends Of The Pecatonica Foundation

For Winning the American Canoe Association’s Green Paddle for Waterway Conservation Award

green paddle

There once was a creek in Freeport

Yellow was its name

And paddlers needed to report

When launching a canoe in the same

A written permit was needed

To put in a river just knee deep

So for help they came asking

And dozens of letters were tasking

The City Officials for permits

When one of them finally said “That’s it –

no more written requests to go paddling.”

And even a launch site was opened.

Which was more than the paddlers had hopened!  (it had to rhyme)

And the rest is history!

This was the beginning of the involvement of Joe Ginger, Lee Butler, Roger Schamberger, and the many friends who eventually formed www.paddlethepec.com  and the Friends of the Pecatonica Foundation (http://pecriver.org/) to help restore, appreciate and celebrate, a nearby river – the Pecatonica.

Their efforts over the past decade are deservedly recognized by the American Canoe Association with their Green Paddle for Waterway Conservation Award.


Check out the Friendliest Paddle in Illinois here, and join the Friends on one of the many trips they offer.
























A Call To The IEPA

By Don Mueggenborg

For several days now, besides the seaweed in the river, there were globs of something floating in the river.

I have called the IEPA about possible pollution before – time to call again.

I paddled on a Tuesday and saws the stuff – whatever it was.

Wednesday I called the Des Plaines office of the Illinois EPA. After a bit of a discussion, I was switched to a field officer (or whatever the title).

Me: “There is stuff floating in the river, it might be raw sewage.”

EPA: “Is it green or brown?”

Me: “Ahh – brownish-green or greenish-brown.  Anyway – I paddle the river frequently and this is something different.   It might be sewage.”

EPA: Where are you paddling?  We will try to get out there to see what it is

I gave him directions, just above the first bridge north of the river – turn right – well, left if you are coming from the north, right if from the south. Wind your way to Madison Street, but it is not marked – go toward the river past the treatment plant.

THURSDAY – the river is as clear as I have ever seen it.

Call the IEPA back – they are not going to find anything today.

Me: “I’m the guy that called yesterday about the pollution on the Des Plaines.”

EPA: We haven’t –“

I cut him off –

Me: “You guys really act fast.  What a great job.  I called one day and the next day the river is clear.  Great Job!”

EPA: We haven’t got there yet.  Probably the heavy rain and cooler weather today.  With hot dry summers, the algae tend to grow.  Treatment plants also add phosphorous.  We will check it out.

By the way – I can’t seem to find the place you mentioned. Wind around where?”

I gave him better directions – turn East at the stoplight on Bluff Road – by a gas station – dead-ends into Madison St, turn right to the river.


Call the IEPA if you think the river is being polluted. In my experience, they really do respond.

The photos are of places on the lower Des Plaines.

Des Plaines River Des Plaines River

Call to All Paddlers: The Chicago Harbor Safety Committee Needs You

By Susan Urbas, Vice President, CHSC

Photo Credit Larry Dostal

I know that the Illinois Paddling Council counts among its membership many paddlers, who, like me as a rower, have several decades of experience plying the Chicago area waterways, particularly the River, under their belts. We know the stark difference between then and now; between the long, slow, steady growth of human-powered and other traffic, and the explosion of all varieties of traffic which has occurred in the last decade. While on the one hand we are heartened to observe the tremendous growth in human-powered craft usage, on the other hand we, and other types of users, are gravely concerned about the safety implications inherent in waterways crowded by a rich diversity of vessels and users operating at widely divergent levels of operational knowledge, skill, and safety practices.

Increasing concerns over safety risks on Chicago area waterways led to a Ports and Waterways Safety Assessment (PAWSA) being conducted by the Coast Guard on March 27-28, 2012. The purpose of the PAWSA was to identify major safety hazards, estimate risk levels, evaluate potential mitigation measures, and set the stage for implementation of selected measures to further reduce risks in the Port of Chicago. PAWSA participants included representatives from marine stakeholder organizations and government agencies at the federal, state and local levels, including law enforcement.

By conclusion of the PAWSA process, it was clear to the participants that a new harbor safety committee structure was needed that would effectively bring together the diverse variety of Chicago waterway users who have mutual interests in the use of navigable waterways, with the agencies which oversee the waterways. The challenge in drafting a charter for this new harbor safety committee was building a structure that at every level ensured the appropriate marine interests would be represented and the appropriate expertise applied to solve problems and educate the public.

(Remember that last sentence as you read on, for the application, as appropriate to the issue at hand, of all of the relevant marine interests and their expertise to solve problems and educate the public is at the very heart of the CHSC. If your voice, expressing its concerns and knowledge are not in the CHSC room, then you, and the marine community collectively, may just as well hand it over to other interests or unenlightened third parties to make decisions about our waterways’ usage).

The Chicago Harbor Safety Committee (CHSC) was formed on July 15, 2013. The CHSC Charter, which required approval of the Coast Guard, was the result of a year-long effort to devise a harbor safety committee for Chicago which suited the nature of this marine community and its waterway challenges. The approved charter emerged from historical elements in the Chicago marine community (its less formal predecessor harbor safety committee, the 12-year old Port Development and Safety Council), best practices gleaned from other harbor safety committees around the country, and many rounds of input from marine stakeholder and government agency representatives.

Despite the heavy workload to get the new organization up and running, the CHSC did not hesitate to take immediate action to improve the traffic safety on the Chicago River. Faced with a rapid increase in the number of “close calls” between commercial and industrial vessels (tour boats and barges) and rental boats (kayaks and electric boats) during the 2013 boating season, the CHSC sprang into action less than a month after its inaugural meeting on July 15th, and proposed a traffic and hazard warning signage plan which received Coast Guard approval. The signage that you now see posted along the Chicago River alerting to hazards, directional instructions, and no wake zones was the result of this collaboration between the CHSC, the City, and the Coast Guard.

Other accomplishments of the CHSC since its formation in 2013 include successful collaboration with the City on Chicago Riverwalk project construction activity; dissemination of numerous safety relevant alerts, documents, and publications; coordination and collaboration on filming and special events projects on the River and Lake; operational modification of the Centennial Fountain; development and presentation of a Chicago waterway-specific safety education presentation; and perhaps most importantly, CHSC’s very detailed and recently released Safety Recommendations and Guide to Rules and Regulations. New projects now underway include development of a web portal for user-relevant safety training and certification.

For more information about the CHSC and how to join as an individual member or marine stakeholder organization member, please drop me a note at info@chicagoharborsafety.com. Pardon our mess while we complete work on our website, www.chicagoharborsafety.com. A couple of weeks from now, that will be the place to go for everything CHSC and Chicago area waterways related.