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Ready for refilling

Utica has tamed, fixed its leg of the I&M Canal towpath

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Curt Spayer, Utica public works superintendent, uses a special boom mower that can extend up to 18 feet to eliminate weeds and brush along the Illinois and Michigan Canal in Utica. The village has improved the canal’s overall appearance and wants to refill it.

No more fallen trees. No more potholes. For Mickey Carey, his daily ride has become less of an obstacle course.

Carey of Utica rides his bicycle along the Illinois and Michigan Canal and has been pleased at the ever-improving quality of the towpath near Utica. Village workers have beaten back the weeds and tall grass and removed potholes and limbs that threaten to hurl cyclists.

“They keep it up real nice,” Carey observed approvingly. “Everything looks good down there.”

That’s welcome news for Mayor David Stewart, who last year cut a deal with Springfield: You lease us the Utica-area leg of the I&M towpath and we’ll fix it up.

The two sides shook on it and the deal so far looks like a winner for the state and village.

“I’m very pleased with what we’ve got accomplished so for,” Stewart said. “The end goal, obviously, is to get water into the canal — that’s the next phase that a group of us are working on as we speak.”

Stewart said he hopes to pitch Springfield a plan to re-water the canal by year’s end. It’s a priority now that village workers have tamed the once-unkempt towpath.

The project got off the ground last year when the Illinois Department of Natural Resources entered into an agreement with Utica giving the village unprecedented oversight of about two miles of the canal, stretching from the end of Clark’s Run to Pecumsaugan Creek.

Villagers were eager to launch the project, but Curt Spayer, public works superintendent, said the canal upkeep got off to a slow start thanks to a dreary spring. Once the weather broke, he and his workers threw themselves into the cleanup with gusto.

Spayer estimates there was a decade’s worth of fallen trees and it took his crew the equivalent of two full days a week to get the canal up to snuff. Clearing the trees and filling potholes was the most arduous but the village also invested in a heavy-duty mower to trim the towpath.

Stewart emphasized the mower, a $40,000 purchase, wasn’t invested only for the towpath. The village also is responsible for maintaining North 2803rd Road and around the sewer plant and an upgrade mower was needed for those areas, too.

The work and the investment paid off. Spayer said his workers tamed the I&M corridor to where only general maintenance is needed going forward.

“We definitely have a lot of residents and bike-path users complimenting us on our side and how clean it is and how much better access they have,” he said.

Next: raising funds for the refilling of the canal. Stewart said he hopes villagers and neighbors come hungry to Pork Fest this weekend because he has fingers crossed the event will raise $50,000.

Coupled with a $150,000 grant announced in June, a successful Pork Fest could leave the village a sizable stash ready for the day when Springfield OK’s refilling the canal, though Stewart said he does not yet have a preliminary total for re-watering the canal.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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Tom Collins is the NewsTribune Senior Reporter. He can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com.

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