You can submerge Ottawa — on your computer, that is

  • Charles Stanley,, 815-431-4063 | Mar 16, 2016
You can submerge Ottawa — on your computer, that is
Buy Now On a new National Weather Service web page, Ottawa Building Official Mike Sutfin points out the faint image of the abandoned railroad bed which affects river flooding as predicted by a new computer.  Image Captured by Charles Stanley

Ottawans who want to watch their town get flooded now can do so from their home computers — with no real damage involved.

A computer simulation of flooding by the Fox and Illinois rivers that can be controlled by the viewer has been launched by the National Weather Service in partnership with the Illinois State Water Survey, FEMA and city of Ottawa.

“It is remarkable just how darned accurate this is,” said Ottawa Building Official Mike Sutfin during a demonstration for The Times.

As he adjusted the water level control, the blue overlay of the rivers began to expand from their banks onto low lying property.

“Then all of a sudden we get to see the scary stuff,” he said.

Suddenly, as the river heights passed any past records, flood walls were overwhelmed, bridges disappeared and neighborhoods were submerged.

“This is pretty crazy to look at, but for us it’s a wonderful planning tool for dealing with floods,” Sutfin said. “We can see how deep the waters will be and where. I think we should be prepared even for the crazy flooding, because although it’s unlikely, we shouldn’t consider ourself immune to it.”

As an indication of the precision of the ground map, Sutfin pointed out the faint image of the abandoned railroad bed east of Ottawa that once was the route of the interurban streetcar line between Ottawa and Marseilles.

“That old railroad bed restricts the flow of water until it reaches a certain height,” he said. “This map is really accurate.”

The inundation mapping extends approximately 3 miles upstream and 2.5 miles downstream of the Illinois river gage at Ottawa High School,  as well as 4 miles upstream on the Fox River from its confluence with the Illinois.

The web site for the NWS flooding prediction is

It includes a link to a YouTube video explaining how the site works and how to use it.

More detailed information about the Web interface is available at

REZIN: Flood alliance helps keep us dry

Published in the Times July 20, 2017

To the Editor:
Illinois is seeing firsthand the havoc flooding creates for people in Northern Illinois. Four counties have been declared disaster areas as the Fox River, Des Plaines River, Chain of Lakes and other waterways have wiped out property and infrastructure. The state of Illinois has the largest collection of inland bodies of water and rivers in the continental United States. Twelve percent of surface in Illinois is mapped as a flood plain. My 38th Senate District, which stretches from Bureau County on the west to Will County on the east, has about 130 miles worth of river frontage, one of the most in the state. Ottawa alone is the watershed for 12,000 square miles.

Flooding is serious in Illinois and it requires a serious approach to deal with it.

Like Northern Illinois right now, in 2013, communities I represent along the Illinois and Fox rivers also lived the hardships that come with severe flooding. Many neighborhoods, businesses and infrastructure were destroyed. Morris Hospital had to close. Thousands of lives were impacted, property was lost, tokens of precious memories were gone forever, and infrastructure had to be rebuilt. That flood cost La Salle and Grundy counties alone more than $150 million.

That’s why after that flood, my office teamed up with local leaders and started the Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance (IVFRA). The IVFRA brings communities, local governments and emergency personnel together as one unit to prepare for and battle floods. It includes La Salle, Grundy, Bureau, and Putnam counties.

The IVFRA meets four times a year and has resiliency plans in place for the region. Cities in my district have implemented new flood-related ordinances that are helping keep water away from homes, schools and businesses. There are also now 24 new Certified Floodplain Managers in my district.

The IVFRA has received statewide and national attention. It’s is also now approved as a continuing education credit for certified floodplain managers.

In April, our area saw rising rivers and streams after heavy rainfall. However, after coordinating with members of our Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance, the impact was minimal. How governments respond upstream and downstream impacts other communities along the waterway. So, being on the same page as a region has made a big difference.

The IVFRA is truly a model other regions of the state and the country should adopt. It has given our communities a better chance at staying dry.

38th Legislative District State Senator

Generator location offers Ottawa high level of savings

Sometimes stubbornness really pays off.

For Ottawa, the savings was millions of dollars, according to Ron Davis, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency’s state hazard mitigation officer.

“I’m the SHMO,” Davis likes to joke.

The stubbornness was on the part of Ottawa Building Official Mike Sutfin, and it took place years ago when a backup generator was going to be installed for Ottawa’s sewage treatment plant, Davis recounted last week at a meeting of state Sen. Sue Rezin’s Illinois Valley Flood Resiliency Alliance.

There are a lot of angles to flood mitigation, Davis said.

“But too often when we talk mitigation, we mostly talk about funds,” he said.

But there are other important factors.

“The thing that’s saving the taxpayers’ money and making the community safer, is the stuff you do on the front end,” Davis told the alliance members. “You guys can really make a difference.”

His favorite case in point is his tale of Sutfin and the backup generator.

“It’s the best example in the state,” Davis said.

“The city was building a new multimillion dollar sewer plant. Mike sees the design — and this is a world-class engineering firm that designed it — and saw they put the backup generator at ground level in the flood plain.

“Mike takes a look at it and he says ‘No way: This isn’t acceptable.’

“He got browbeaten by those guys pretty good,” said Davis. “You know ‘Who are you to tell us what to do?’

“But Mike held his ground, and he said, ‘No way; you’re not going to build unless its three feet above the base flood elevation.’ So they build it on a pedestal about six feet in the air.”

Then came the huge flood of 2013, Davis recalled.

“I go out to the sewer plant with Mike, and there’s the waterline about four feet up on this thing.

“If Mike had not held his ground, that generator would have been totally submerged, and the city would have lost the whole sewer plant.

“I asked Mike how much it cost to build this concrete stand and he said five to ten thousand dollars.

“Mike did it and he saved the town millions of dollars,” said Davis.

Sutfin said not only did the elevated generator save the city plenty of money, it also prevented plenty of raw sewage from going straight into the Illinois River.

Right now the only evidence of the flood’s high water mark on the concrete generator stand is a dark line a little more than half way up.

Pretty soon that will change, Sutfin said.

Ottawa is in line to participate in FEMA’s High Water Mark Initiative.

As part of that project, signs showing past high water marks will be posted in prominent places throughout the city — including the concrete backup generator stand.

“It will help make us more flood aware,” Sutfin said.