Drought Threatens Small Town's Big Boat Race

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For more than 25 years, a tiny town in northern Illinois has hosted a national powerboat competition. It attracts thousands of people who spend much-needed money in the sleepy village of DePue. But the ongoing drought is threatening this year's competition: To get enough water on the lake, the town needs to pump 650 million gallons out of a nearby river. Mike Moen reports from member station WNIJ.


The drought is threatening a major event important to one small lake town. For more than 25 years, DePue, Illinois has hosted the American Powerboat Association's national championships. This year, officials discovered the water level in the lake was too low. And so, they embarked on an unusual effort to bring in more water.

Mike Moen of member station WNIJ reports.


MIKE MOEN, BYLINE: In an old beat-up fishing boat, DePue Mayor Eric Bryant and volunteer Rich Magnuson are racing across the lake that bears the town's name.


MONTAGNE: Everything is going fine until this happens.


MOEN: The boat encounters a muddy patch, a sign that a lack of rain and scorching temperatures had deprived this lake of water. After getting the boat free from the mud, they pull up to a temporary dam where the lake connects with the Illinois River.

This dam is made from large white sand bags. Above them is a makeshift pumping system, powered by diesel engines from four farm tractors perched on top of the dam.

RICH MAGNUSON: You got a power take off on them, which is - you engage - turns the shafts and then turns the pump and obviously pumps it through the hose into the lake.

MOEN: This was Rich Magnuson's idea. He was told to make sure this thirsty lake has enough water to host the event. Magnuson estimates at least 500 million gallons will be pumped from the Illinois River into DePue. The pumps have been running for more than a week now, trying to get the lake from three feet of water to five, the minimum required by the event's insurer. Magnuson says it hasn't been easy.

MAGNUSON: Between pumps breaking and just getting pumps here, getting fuel down here.

MOEN: One complication is that they're co-mingling Illinois River water with a lake that is on the list of Illinois superfund sites. Lake DePue's pollution woes stem from discharges from a zinc smelting plant. Paul Bosnich is one of the boat racers participating this weekend. All he's thinking about right now is the water level.

PAUL BOSNICH: If you were to go out of the boat, you could stick your head in mud, that's a broken neck. You know, anything could happen in too-shallow water.

MOEN: Bosnich says racing teams and area residents have developed a special bond over the years. DePue Mayor Eric Bryant agrees, and says for an economically struggling community, having 20,000 people visit is a big boost.

MAYOR ERIC BRYANT: This is a homecoming for our town. It's not just about money. It's about the annual reunion that we have here.

MOEN: As the pumping continues, local environmental groups aren't voicing many objections. The town did get permission from the Illinois EPA, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Army Corps of Engineers. But Jen Walling with the Illinois Environmental Council says returning water to the river may be problematic.

JEN WALLING: And you'd find that you might be diverted from one water source to another, you'd worry about things like drinking water contamination, how that will affect the eco-systems along the Illinois River.

MOEN: Meanwhile, Rich Magnuson and his crew are feeling pretty confident. They say the lake now measures at five feet. To make sure it stays that high, those tractor-driven pumps will keep running for the next couple of days. For NPR News, I'm Mike Moen in DeKalb, Illinois.

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