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Rock River dam gives and takes -- It gives Rocks Falls electricty, takes water for Hennepin Canal

By Todd Welvaert, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer


Photo by Todd Welvaert / staff
Rock Falls electric department director Bob O'Donnell watches over the hydroelectric dam built on the Rock River to provide electricity for 12 percent of city's populace.
ROCK FALLS -- One city along the Rock River has used that little waterway to reduce its dependence on utilities and cut consumer costs by harnessing the river's current.

Rock Falls built its hydroelectric plant along the Sterling or Sinnissippi dam in 1988 and can meet about 12 percent of the city's annual usage needs. The $6 million project will should be paid off in 2002.

"We will be making some pretty inexpensive energy then," said Bob O'Donnell, electrical director for the Rock Falls Hydroelectric Power Generating Plant. "We were able to restructure some of the bonds we sold; back in the '80s we were paying a pretty high interest rate. This will enable us to pay off the dam a little earlier and pass that savings along to our consumers."

The city owns its own electric company and buys what it can't make from wholesale distributors. City employees maintain meters and lines, similar to the way other city's operate water departments.

The hydroelectric dam uses the pool created by the 91-year-old Sinnissippi Dam, which was originally constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1907.

Besides providing a pool for the electric plant, the dam also diverts water from the river, via a feeder waterway, to the Hennepin Canal.

The 29-mile feeder canal runs south from the Sterling-Rock Falls area to near Sheffield and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Hennepin Canal Historic District.

"It's called a `run of the river' dam," Mr. O'Donnell said. "It only uses what current is already there. Fish can still swim through it, we only have to make sure debris doesn't foul the blades. We have pulled some weird stuff out of there. It amazes me what people still throw in the river. Sinks, bathtubs, you name it."

The electric plant itself, a concrete building built in the river parallel with the Sinnissippi dam, houses two massive propellers which spin in the river's current. The propellers spin a rod at about 100 revolutions a minute, which through gearing, is increased to about 9,000 revolutions a minute in the generator.

"It's a pretty clean way to make power," Mr. O'Donnell said. "But there aren't too many places on the Rock with a pool like the one we have upstream from us. We wouldn't have been able to do it without the dam."

The pool also makes recreational opportunities for area residents. The pool is used for fishing, water skiing, swimming and boating.

"Heck, it used to be a big boat on the rock was 18 feet," Mr. O'Donnell said. "Now, there are people in this pool with 30-footers. They get a little nervous when the water level falls, but that's not always up to us."

The eight-foot average depth is maintained in part by leaf gates and is critical for the hydroelectric power. Illinois Department of Natural Resources is asking local lawmakers to help find funds to repair or replace sections of the Sinnissippi Dam.

Replacing the dam would cost the state an estimated $8.8 million; however, there is no plan to replace the structure. Should the dam fail, there would not be enough water in the upper pool to spin the plant's turbine, according to Mr. O'Donnell.

"The impact would be upstream," he said. "The water level would affect boating in the upper pool, and there wouldn't be enough water for the canal, it would dry up. It's a concern, but I think the pool's importance to the state is high. They have spent a lot of money on touting the recreation of the dam and of the canal."

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.