The Future of the Illinois River

  • Posted by Dawn Merritt

    “Whiskey is for drinking, water is worth fighting over.” This quote, from an unknown author, speaks the truth of efforts underway to restore the Illinois River, the floodplains, and the backwaters.

    By Olivia Dorothy, IWLA Upper Mississippi River Coordinator

    Since the glaciers retreated 9,000 years ago, people have called this river home. Native people relied on the river’s seasonal pulses to provide an abundance of resources: fish, birds, water, animals, stone, wood, and the means to travel from Illinois to Canada, from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico, via the vast network of Mississippi River tributaries.

    European explorers first arrived in the valley in the 1500s, and then the French explored the Illinois and Mississippi River extensively in the 1600s. They mapped the region, using the river as a highway, and established trading posts along the Great Rivers with the Native Americans. The explorers gained notoriety and wealth from the rivers’ rich resources and live on today in memory as LaSalle County, Pere Marquette State Park, Hennepin Canal, and the city of Joliet.

    As America grew as a nation, the European immigrants moved west via the Ohio River. Settlers had a choice to make when they reached the Ohio River’s confluence with the Mississippi: They could move north via the upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, or head South towards New Orleans. Settlers who wanted extra adventure could travel up the Missouri into and the Wild West.

    Today, we have changed the Illinois River and its ecosystems on a scale that competes only with glaciers. As soon as Europeans reached the Illinois River and its rich mosaic of resources, they harvested everything from the river’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of assets. Explorers trapped animals for fur to ship back to Europe, almost driving the beaver into extinction to make hats. And Illinois – the prairie state – lost its prairie under the plow to feed growing populations.

    Then, in the 1930s, locks and dams were built to facilitate navigation. Inland navigation was promoted to compete with the booming railroad industry, and barge operators needed nine feet of water to float their barges. So dams were built, flooding the meandering Illinois River. And to further ensure adequate water heights, engineers cut off the backwater fish nurseries from the channel. Many of these backwaters, once they were isolated from the river, were drained and plowed.

    But as Aldo Leopold observed, this type of strictly economic land relationship entails “privileges but not obligations.” In the name of economic development, we have dammed, polluted, over fished, and over used our Illinois River almost to ruin. But not quite. Like the Mississippi, the Illinois River “will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise,” as Mark Twain famously stated.

    By constraining the river, we have exacerbated flooding. The worst flood in Illinois history happened in 1993. This was a clear wake-up call that we need to rethink how the river is managed. So what are our obligations to the river and how do we meet them?

    There are groups today that are working to restore the Illinois River and its floodplains. Emiquon – once a leveed, drained, and farmed backwater – is being restored by the Nature Conservancy. When you visit, you can kayak in the tree tops that lined the farm fields just a few years ago. It is projects like this that give me hope for the Illinois River. We have taken so much from the river but as people realize we are obligated to protect it, we begin to give back the habitat through restoration projects like Emiquon.

    As restoration projects are implemented and the environment improves, the economic benefits from a healthy river ecosystem will be evident. A 1997 Nature article valued floodplain benefits at almost $8,000 per acre annually because of their ability to reduce flood damage and nutrients, regulate water flows, and provide habitat. So when Emiquon is complete and reconnected to the river, it could produce at least $55 million in economic benefits annually!

    We have made many mistakes in our management of the Illinois River, but we are recognizing our errors and working to reconcile our obligation to nature. In the late 1800s, engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River. Originally, the Chicago River emptied into Lake Michigan, but the lake was the source of drinking water for the city of Chicago. So, in an honorable attempt to reduce the spread of disease in Chicago, engineers separated the Chicago River from Lake Michigan and diverted it into the Illinois River, saving millions of lives in the city by sending disease and pollution ridden water down to Peoria and beyond. This plan also allowed shipping traffic to navigate seamlessly between the Illinois River and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence.

    But this path also permitted invasive species to move freely between the Great Lakes and Illinois River. There are currently more than 250 invasive species established in one or both basins, and in the Great Lakes, invasive species cost the region $200 million annually. Because people are concerned about and aware of the ecological problems, a proposal to re-reverse the Chicago Area Waterway System is on the table and being seriously considered.

    We are beginning to acknowledge that the uninhibited industrial growth that provides many short-term benefits is not sustainable over the long run. We are seeing more focus on developing green infrastructure instead of grey infrastructure. And I think this is hopeful because people are fighting for the river. The future of the Illinois River is in our hands and I hope you will join us as we continue to fight for restoration funding and smarter management decisions. We fight for the river because, as Canadian pilot Buffalo Joe once said, “The song of the River ends not at her banks but lives in the hearts of those who have loved her.”

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