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Wilmington’s Kankakee River Dam, site of multiple drownings, faces a murky future

For years, it has been an on-again, off-again topic, sometimes flooded with more questions than answers.

But what is clear — at least in more recent history — is a majority of Wilmington residents would prefer the South Island Dam on the Kankakee River be removed outright, according to responses from a survey the city sent out late in 2020.

For years, the dam site has been a site of controversy because of the multiple drownings that have occurred.

One of the most prominent cases occurred in 2016, when siblings Abigail and Edger Arroyo lost their lives to the rushing waters. Edger, 12, reportedly wanted to touch the water falling from the dam, and Abigail, 13, went into the rushing rapids to try retrieving him after he fell in.

Another high-profile case at the same site occurred just a year later when Elizabeth Larson, 36, drown after her inflatable raft went over the dam. A girl was with Larson at the time, and Larson managed to save the girl’s life before losing her own.

Since then, renewed calls to remove the dam have arisen, and a Wilmington municipal panel — the Buildings, Grounds, Parks, Health and Safety Committee — has taken charge of looking into next steps for the troubled site.

When the committee last discussed the survey results in November, 304 of the 444 respondents favored a major overhaul.

The results, according to municipal documents, are as follows:

Option 1 — Complete removal of South Island dam (304 respondents)

Option 2 — Construction of rock ramp on downstream side of dam and new dam in millrace (55 respondents)

Option 3 — Construction of rock ramp on downstream side of dam and series of rock drop structures in millrace conductive to canoe/kayak passage (59 respondents)

Option 4 — Leave it alone (26 respondents)

While no firm decisions have been made, members of the Buildings, Grounds, Parks, Health and Safety Committee plan to continue discussing the dam and its future within the city in 2021.

Minutes from the November committee meeting indicated members plan on “meeting with the engineers again to conduct reports on the dam.”

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