In the early 1900s, a complex system of wetlands and lakes teeming with diverse natural communities of native plants and animals existed along the Illinois River in west-central Illinois. The river itself, a major tributary of the Mississippi River, supported a productive inland fishery and abundant mussels. Archeological sites indicate the remarkable area had been attracting humans for more than 10,000 years.
As the 20th century progressed, levees began isolating the river from nearly half of its natural floodplain as native habitat was converted to working farmland. Natural water flow patterns were further altered as the Illinois became part of an engineered navigation system for exporting valuable crops and importing needed goods.
Now known as Emiquon, the area is home to The Nature Conservancy's 7,000-acre Emiquon project, where one of the largest private wetland restoration efforts in the United States is in progress. The Conservancy's vision is to return Emiquon to a mix of prairie, bottomland forest and wetlands and, through a managed connection, to make it a functional part of the Illinois River.
Strategies and Progress
The Conservancy has been working for more than a decade to conserve the Illinois River. The restoration at Emiquon provides an important opportunity to help achieve that goal. Much research and work has been done to prepare for the restoration and managed connection, including scientific monitoring and computer-based simulations of water levels and sedimentation. The Emiquon Science Advisory Council, a group of more than 40 scientists of regional and national acclaim, has assisted in these efforts.
In September 2006, the Conservancy became a partner at Emiquon with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as almost 90 percent of the preserve was enrolled in the agency's Wetlands Reserve Program. Conservancy and NRCS officials are now developing an updated restoration plan for the preserve.
In the future, a key component of the restoration effort will be the construction of a structure to allow a managed reconnection between Emiquon's restored floodplain and the river. Once established, such a reconnection would:
- help naturalize river flow and the movement of water within Emiquon's wetlands, thus restoring natural, cyclical processes of flooding and drying and improving water quality;
- provide nutrients for wetland plants and improve their reproduction;
- allow access between the river and floodplain for aquatic species, including paddlefish and gar, which need a variety of habitats to reproduce and survive; and
- allow the wetlands to deliver a diversity and abundance of food to species within the river.
In collaboration with a multitude of partners that includes state and federal agencies and universities, the Conservancy will study the effects of such a managed reconnection, including its benefits for the conservation of wetland species and natural communities.
Restoring floodplains and reconnecting them to their adjacent rivers is essential to conserving the health of the Illinois and other large floodplain river systems such as the Mississippi River. Lessons learned at Emiquon will be shared through the Conservancy's Great Rivers Partnership to advance the Conservancy's national and global efforts to protect the Earth's critically important freshwater resources.