Rockford Park District recovers from devastating floods

Rockford, Ill., the third largest city in the state with about 155,000 residents, lies about 70 miles west of Chicago on the banks of the Rock River. Rockford Park District, celebrating its 100th anniversary, recently recovered from devastating flooding that damaged various segments of park turf and closed athletic fields for a full season. Successful fundraising and efficient management practices are key elements in the park district’s continued expansion and ability to offer services.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF ROCKFORD PARK DISTRICT.
Bill Drummer mows with a Kubota mower.
 
Aerial shots illustrate extensive flooding of the park.

Executive Director Tim Dimke said, “We are quickly becoming more urbanized. If we do not keep natural and turf areas in front of people, if we lose a generation of people, they will not appreciate these things.” Park district leaders continue to provide settings for a broad choice of outdoor activities.

The park district was formed in 1909 by a group of leading industrialists with the goal of providing outdoor recreation for their employees. A Park District Foundation provides extensive fundraising support, and a centralized volunteer program has been established in which nearly 2,000 volunteers participate. Dimke cited extensive leveraging of private and capital funding to fund new projects and expanded services.

Recovering from flooding

The Rockford area, along with much of the Midwest, was left with saturated grounds from April 2008 floodwaters. By the time late June flooding arrived, the saturated soil could not absorb any more water. The Rock River overflowed its banks, and golf courses, parks and homes were heavily flooded resulting in extensive damage.

Floodwaters from the overflowing Rock River covered several park district locations.

Sportscore One athletic complex, with eight soccer fields and eight softball diamonds, was destroyed. In addition, several parks, recreation paths and other facilities were damaged by floodwaters. Scheduled sports were quickly moved to other sites, including the Sportscore Two facility, where outdoor soccer fields are located along with indoor sports facilities, and neighborhood parks throughout the park district. Rock Valley Community College absorbed much of the scheduled soccer play, including major tournaments.

Glenn Smith, sports complex manager, and staff members quickly began the process of restoring turfgrass to the athletic fields. As soon as the soccer fields and softball diamonds dried out, they were dragged with a harrow to remove debris. The dead turfgrass was mowed with a Progressive rotary mower, and the fields were double-aerified. “We used both solid-tine and core aerification,” Smith said. Slit-seeding was started by mid-July using an athletic mix.

“We used 4 to 6 pounds per 1,000 square feet,” Smith said. A Land Pride 60-inch seeder was used, and an 18-25-12 fertilizer obtained from John Deere Landscapes in nearby Loves Park, Ill. Mulch was applied to the newly seeded athletic fields, which were then manually watered. Equipment was shifted among departments as needed to complete the work as quickly as possible.

Dan Erwin discusses turf repair and park maintenance.

Starter fertilizer applications were continued to help establish the turfgrass. Mowing began about six weeks after seeding was completed. Weed control was required in the fall, and an herbicide was applied as well as a fall dormant feeding of a 20-5-20 product. A regular schedule of fertilizing and mowing began in spring of 2009. Overseeding is frequently done to compensate for the heavy play on the athletic fields and in other heavily used turf sites.

Dan Erwin, manager of parks and horticulture, oversaw turf repair or replacement on Blackhawk Park and Martin Park softball diamonds, Marinelli Baseball Stadium located in Blackhawk Park, and on several areas along recreation paths.

The soil on Blackhawk Park softball diamonds was worked up with a Gill pulverizer and dragged with a drag mat on a John Deere 5200 series tractor. The diamonds were seeded in an athletic field mix with a rotary fertilizer spreader, and starter fertilizer was applied. “Seed and fertilizer were worked into the soil with a Krohmer field groomer with drag mat, Erwin said. A second spreading of grass seed was done with a rotary spreader, and a light straw cover was blown onto the diamonds with a Goosen bale chopper.

Erwin said, “We applied Flight Control goose deterrent to the newly seeded locations on Marinelli Stadium field, and Blackhawk softball and Martin Park softball diamonds as the seed emerged to protect the seed from being fed on by resident and migratory Canada geese.”

Marinelli Stadium has been home to several minor league baseball teams over the years. Most of the work at Marinelli Stadium in Blackhawk Park was completed by contractors. Erwin said, “The turf was not underwater as long as the softball diamond at Blackhawk, and most of the turf survived.”

Erwin said, “Yellow nutsedge was sprayed out with glyphosate herbicide, and the entire outfield was core-aerified and slit-seeded with an athletic field grass seed mix. The infield remained was above the floodwaters and undamaged.” Marinelli has an automatic irrigation system with rotary heads to keep turf irrigated.

Martin Park softball diamond is an outlying practice diamond. Turf repair was procedures were similar to the Marinelli Stadium work and was done by contractors.

The Rock River recreation path was closed to the public until water receded from the path. The path was then swept with a power brook, and debris was removed from the turf both by hand and with a York rake attachment to a John Deere 5200 series tractor.

Effective park maintenance

The approximately 4,500 acres of parks are divided into five zones for grounds maintenance. A maintenance coordinator in each zone is responsible for one or two large parks and several smaller parks. With the help of seasonal staff, the coordinators maintain turf, playgrounds, recreation paths, roadways, trees and waterways. Four certified landscape technicians are on staff.

The Sportscore One fields were damaged extensively by floodwaters.
 
The ground is prepared, reseeded and fertilized.
 
Soccer is played in spring 2009.

“We have four certified landscape technicians on staff, members who are certified through Illinois Landscape Contractors Association (ILCA) and PLANET. We rely heavily on our seasonal and part-time staff of up to 60 during the summer months,” Erwin said. “We use volunteers and public service workers to help.” A horticulture crew maintains the riverfront parks and landscaped sites. Most sites are irrigated and receive fertilizer and broadleaf control applications.

Seventy-six neighborhood athletic fields are maintained. Expanding prairie, woodland and wetland areas make up about 1,500 acres of natural areas, and controlled burns are used in management of the natural areas. A 66-acre natural area located within one of the parks is designated an Illinois Natural Preserve.

Nathan Hill, natural areas maintenance coordinator, said, “Although seeds cannot be collected from the preserve, we collect seeds from other natural areas within the Park district. The seeds collected are cleaned, dried and used to reseed in the preserve and in other natural areas.”

The 39-acre Sinnissippi Gardens site is maintained by two full-time staff. Up to 12 seasonal staff and volunteers supplement the full-time staff. Construction of the 21,800 square-foot Nicholas Conservatory is underway in Sinnissippi Gardens. The $11 million project is being built with a combination of private donations and grant money.

Continual improvements in equipment and products over the past decade have improved the efficiency of grounds maintenance. Erwin said, “Equipment and product changes have been very beneficial to our operations. Better fuel efficiency, quieter and more powerful engines and improved quality of cut in mowers have helped us improve efficiency and reduce labor expenses.”

Erwin said, “Compaction is an issue in some of our more heavily used sportsfields and Davis Festival Park. We aerate and topdress the heavily used areas to reduce compaction, increase water infiltration and gas exchange.” The park district encompasses 4,500 acres. An $11 million conservatory is under construction with grant money and private donations. A state park lies within park district property, and a nearby Forest Preserve District complements the Rockford Park District.

“The park district continues to focus on maintaining increased facilities with less staff and reduced costs. Equipment innovation, increased natural areas, and increased use of volunteers and contract services help us maintain quality and reduce expenses,” Erwin said.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.