Hennepin Canal Parkway to close

Lisa Depies

Closing the Hennepin Canal State Parkway could be disastrous according to local canal supporters.

In accordance with Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s budget cuts, the Hennepin Canal is slated to close Nov. 1.

“This is a serious problem, and we’re trying to fight it,” said Victor Bianchetta, a past president of the Geneseo Izaak Walton League.

“If the canal is closed, anyone fishing, camping or using its bike trail will be trespassing,” said Bianchetta.

Though much of the Izaak Walton property belongs to the state, the group’s lodge is located on city-owned property. However, the road leading to the lodge is on state property. “We’re uncertain what will happen,” said Bianchetta. “We don’t know how this will affect the use of our lodge.”

Craig Weber owns the Geneseo Campground, located on the north side of the Hennepin Canal. ?He estimates 70 percent of his customers use the parkway in some form.

“The canal is a great resource for our customers,” he said. “It’s a big plus for us.”

But, the ramifications of closing the canal stretch far beyond business, said Weber.

“The canal has been on life support for the past four years, since the last round of budget cuts. A lot of the repairs being done are just temporary fixes. There haven’t been any major expenditures in four years,”?he said.

“Without regular maintenance, it’s only a matter of time before the canal breaks through its banks,” he said. When that happens, not only will canal water flood adjoining land, it will also cause the canal to dry out.

“There’s no water coming into the canal, aside from at the feeder canal,” said Weber.  “If it drains, all that will be left are mosquito-infected puddles, and the smell would be horrendous. Can you imagine all those dead fish? To lose all of that water would be an ecological disaster.”

Weber said the state has more than 250 lease agreements, easements and right-of-ways along the Hennepin Canal?State?Parkway. “They’re talking about negating all of those agreements, including the 64 agreements that are legally binding.”

The bike path running along side the canal was built with funds provided by a federal government grant. “The grant agreement calls for the state to maintain the trail. If they fail to do that, all federal highway funds to Illinois could be cut off,” said Weber.

The decision to close the canal “is a power play” by Governor Blagojevich, said Weber. “If you look at areas where the closures are happening, they’re all in fairly strong Republican districts or in areas where the Democrats aren’t supporting the governor.

“It’s extremely shocking that he would use something like the canal as leverage. It’s the third largest state park in Illinois.”

Weber said the closure is part of an ongoing battle Blagojevich is having with the state Department of Natural?Resources. When Blagojevich took office, the DNR’s annual budget was $127 million. It’s now at $51 million, said Weber.

“We knew he was going to cut the DNR’s budget. He’s said he thinks it’s a drain on resources and that nobody needs it. But we thought maybe the canal would go from 15 employees down to 10, not complete closure. That was inconceivable,” said Weber.

On Sept. 10, a bill calling for the restoration of funding to the canal was introduced by Rep. Donald Moffit (R-Galesburg). However, that bill won’t be addressed until Nov. 12, two weeks after the park closes, said Weber.

“There’s always a chance the governor could veto it, and then it wouldn’t be until January that representatives could get back and try to override his veto,” said Weber.

“By Nov. 12, the canal will be closed for two weeks, and, as fragile as it is, that could mean big problems. If they wait two months until January, it could be disastrous,” he said.

Weber added if the state decides to “cut its liabilities” and stop the flow of water to the canal “they’ll never turn the water back on.”

“It’s not a pretty picture, and we’re doing everything we can to prevent the closing from happening,” said Weber.

He urges local residents to write letters to their representatives. “When they see 500 or more letters piled on their desk, it makes an impression,” he said. “Write letters and keep writing them.”

In addition to state representatives, Weber said he’s contacted the American Canal Society, American Discovery Trail?Association, EPA, Federal Highway Association and more.

“I don’t think the governor really thought about what kind of effect closing the Hennepin Canal would have. According to him, he said he picked the 11 state parks that are little used,” said Weber. “But, the DNR’s own numbers show that 1.2 million people use the canal each year. I’m at a loss to say how he even thought that was a small number.”

According to the governor’s plan, only one state employee would remain to oversee the entire canal.

“There are more than 300 access points to the canal. You can’t simply lock a gate and keep people out,” said Weber.

Though technically using the canal after Nov. 1 is considered trespassing, Weber said he doesn’t anticipate that law being heavily enforced.

“They don’t have the manpower to patrol the canal,” said Weber. “I?think it’s more of a disclaimer by the state ... if you go out there and get injured, the state’s not liable, because you’re not suppose to be there anyway.”