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Wheaton residents’ woes highlight flooding problems

The Saelingers say blockages like this one along the creek have exasperated flood problems the last few years.
The Saelingers say blockages like this one along the creek have exasperated flood problems the last few years.

WHEATON – Bill and Donna Saelinger have been living off of Gables Street in Wheaton for nearly 60 years, just a stone’s throw from Winfield Creek in their backyard.

“We moved here 11 months after we married,” Donna said. “And it’s getting to the point that, for the first time, we’re wondering if we should move.”

The Saelingers, like many others in the county, have had a significant problem with flooding the past several years, especially during April when the creek rose to just a few feet away from their house.

“The only thing we can do is try to make the house as waterproof as possible,” said resident Bill Zablock, who, along with his wife, Mary, has to sandbag around his home during bad storms to keep flood lines back.

The solution Gables residents are hoping for is to dredge the creek to control future flooding.

There was a major dredging in the 1990s, but the director of stormwater management for DuPage County said jurisdiction for dredging today can be tricky, especially when there are easements – or a lack thereof.

“It’s not as straightforward as many would hope,” said Tony Charlton, who heads the county division. “It’s not a mandate. We can be called in to evaluate, and if it poses an immediate flood risk, we can step in and help. We care about the public interest.”

Gables Street itself doesn’t have a sewer or gullies to help control water levels from the front. So, a few years ago, the residents turned to the city, only to be turned away.

According to an Illinois statue, “removal of obstructions from [...] water courses” as well as “stream maintenance” fall under the jurisdiction of county boards. As for street improvements, Wheaton Director of Engineering Paul Redman said they aren’t in the scope of flood improvements.

“That street and many other miles of streets in Wheaton were built to a standard that was acceptable 80 years ago or was a street that just happened,” Redman said. “We are trying to maintain current infrastructure, not upgrade them with tax dollars.”

But upon turning to the county, residents were rebuffed again. According to the DuPage County Stormwater Management website, the department is responsible for regional flooding, not localized issues.

While the city is going through a large-scale assessment of sewage and the county is working with municipalities to assess flood risks, both are yearslong processes. Redman also said it’s a cost-benefit analysis.

According to another county ordinance, developers are not allowed to cause damages upstream or downstream of flooding improvements. Dredging one part of a body of water could lead to problems downstream, so the entire body would have to be dredged.

In the end, Redman said, it could be a project costing tens of millions of dollars that may still not save tens of millions in property.

But the Saelingers, like many, have grown tired of the struggle.

“We just want to live in peace,” Donna Saelinger said.

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