By Stan Maddux
Some northern Indiana farmers could pay higher property taxes to better control flooding along the Kankakee and Yellow rivers under new legislation passed this spring.
The legislation will help eight counties along both rivers to contribute annual funding toward a solution. The counties are: Jasper, Lake, LaPorte, Marshall, Newton, Porter, Starke and St. Joseph.
Each county has the option of imposing a special assessment on landowners within the river basins to generate their share of the cost. Renewed interest this session is believed to stem from a gradually worsening situation marked by record flooding during a major snowmelt and torrential rains in late February 2018.
Frank Gorski, a grain and hog farmer near La Crosse, says he doesn’t mind paying more taxes because of the higher price tag of recovering from a flood.
“That’s a drop in the bucket compared to all of our other expenses,” Gorski says.
His land closest to the banks of the Kankakee River was covered by more than 10 feet of water last year. Floodwater crept to the edge of his swine barns containing 3,000 hogs and two grain bins.
Matt Schafer, La Crosse, also says he’s willing to pay higher taxes if it means less flooding of his fields and fewer drainage problems from ditches not backing up as often.
“That river — keeping that thing flowing — that’s our lifeline,’’ Schafer says.
Under the legislation, funding is based on the amount of land each county drains into the rivers. Counties can use existing dollars or levy a special assessment on properties within the river basins to meet their obligations.
No more than $1 per acre can be assessed on farmland. The maximum levy for residential parcels is $7. Commercial properties could be assessed no more than $50, while $360 is the maximum levy for industrial and utility properties.
The money will go to the Kankakee River Basin Commission and the Yellow River Basin Development Commission to spend on improved flood control.
According to the Indiana Legislative Services Agency, LaPorte County will be the largest contributor at just over $700,000 annually. The amount paid by Lake, Porter, Newton, Jasper, Marshall, St. Joseph and Starke counties will range from $103,000 to $428,000 each year.
TIME FOR ACTION: No, this isn’t Nebraska in 2019. These are Frank Gorski’s hog barns, full of hogs, which were surrounded by flooding in the Kankakee River basin in 2018.
Scott Pelath, executive director of the Kankakee River Basin Commission, says another $2.3 million from the state over the next two years will also go toward flood control under the legislation.
Pelath says taming the Kankakee is more urgent now after a lack of maintenance. It’s been a century since the vast marshland surrounding it was drained to create rich farmland and levies created from the river’s sandy bottom were placed along the receded edges.
Much of the flooding stems from sandy sediment on the Yellow River’s bottom flowing into the Kankakee.
“The water picks it up and carries it, and it winds up downstream all the way to Illinois,’’ Pelath says.
Initially, Pelath says the focus of the 20-year plan will be stopping the flow of sand from the Yellow River by leveling banks 40 feet high in spots and seeding them with native vegetation. Laying down trees with roots still in the channel to further limit erosion and stabilizing levies are also planned.
Over time, Pelath says the outcome will be water flowing more toward the center of the river and a self-dredging Kankakee able to hold more water.
Keith Gustafson, a member of the Porter County Soil and Water Conservation Board, says the flood control plan seems viable. He’s also confident Pelath will be able to guide the plan to a successful completion.
Pelath, a former state representative, is the new executive director of the KRBC, overseen by a restructured board with fewer members to expedite better flood control.
‘’You’ve got people in there that are looking for answers and are thorough in what they’re doing. I think that’s the starting point,’’ Gustafson says.
Gustafson’s farm southwest of Valparaiso is well north of the Kankakee and not at risk of flooding. But he’s willing to do his part financially because his property drains into the river.
“This is a problem that absolutely requires a regional solution,” Pelath says. “If you don’t have one, what happens is, each county justifiably tries to battle the river in its own way, and that can result in a worse outcome for everybody.”
Maddux writes from South Bend, Ind.