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Local Editorials

Time to build a bridge over troubled waters

Enough of this:

The Illinois and Michigan Canal and canal towpath cannot realize its full potential as a recreation spot and tourist attraction while it’s barricaded midway between Buffalo Rock State Park and Utica.

It’s been at least six years since that section of canal trail has been officially open to hiking and bicycling about three miles east of Utica. There, a deluge of rain created a ferocious torrent in a drainage ditch and Higby Run, overwhelming culverts and blasting a small canyon in a levee. The levee previously supported the canal trail at that ditch.

Usually, a mere trickle of water crosses the canal’s path, but it became clear — all the way back in 2015 — that culverts just don’t work in that spot when heavy rains cause flash flooding.

The canal does not need to hold water in that location. The village of Utica has taken the proactive step to maintain a section of the canal and trail. The village and state agreed in recent months to allow the village to keep its stretch tidy, and even to add water in a section of the canal between the Pecumsaugan Creek east of La Salle and Clark’s Run less than a mile east of Utica. If too much water enters the canal in Utica’s stretch, there’s a spillway from the canal into Clark’s Run, the mayor tells us.

The city of Ottawa is working to put water into the canal, but only in a half-mile-long section.

The trail washout at Higby Run is not near either of those stretches.

Unlike the 112-year-old Hennepin Canal, which has a system of waterfalls at concreted upper lock gates and which receives steady water flow from the Rock River, the more-than 170-year-old Illinois and Michigan Canal has become, essentially, a linear grouping of ponds and narrow wetlands.

So there’s no reason to set up a system to let the water from Higby Run pass beneath the canal.

No aqueduct is needed in that spot.

It’s time to bring in more riprap rock to channel the sometimes-raging Higby Run and then build a bridge. The bridge merely needs to be big enough for bicycles and an occasional maintenance crew pickup to cross. Or the maintenance crew can go around; they already have to.

The Canal Corridor Association, flagship of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, this year invested in a bike-share program. Anyone can check out a bicycle at La Salle (for $2.50 an hour) and ride it back to La Salle or the next drop-off spot. Or at least that’s the plan.

It seems wrong to have the canal well-maintained and promoted on the west at La Salle and at cities and villages to the east while barricades clearly send a closed-for-business message to cyclists.

The closing west of Buffalo Rock serves as a distinct, but easy-to-correct, missing link in the coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail and the 535-mile northern Illinois Grand Illinois Trail loop. Both of those trail systems route cyclists over the I&M and Hennepin Canal trails. How many cyclists skip stopping at Ottawa, Utica or La Salle and local businesses, lodging and eateries when they find out about the closure?

There’s no better solution than building a bridge over Higby Run, and it’s likely the least expensive, permanent fix.

Or even set up an appropriate ford to cross the stream.

This is a public site and public concern that should not still be closed after six years.

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