Illinois' Fresh Ideas for Freshwater

Illinois, a centerpiece of the Mississippi River system, plays a prominent role in the health of this waterway. The Great Rivers Partnership grew out of the state's conservation programs on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers in response to a generous donation from the Caterpillar Foundation in 2004. Illinois continues to play a prominent role, particularly through its projects at Emiquon and the Mackinaw River.

Now, Michael Reuter, senior director of Central U.S. conservation strategies, talks about Illinois' pivotal role in the health of these freshwater resources and how the work connects to river conservation world-wide.

How does Illinois fit into the Great Rivers Partnership?

Michael Reuter:

First, Illinois, with more Mississippi River miles than any other single state, is a critical resource for state residents. As the third largest river system in the world, and perhaps the best studied, it serves as a foundation for the Great Rivers Partnership (GRP). The Mississippi supplies drinking water for millions, fortifies agricultural production, and provides a critical trade route.

Second, most of the rivers in Illinois, including the Illinois River, are tributaries of the Mississippi. Conservancy projects along these waterways, including the Emiquon floodplain restoration and the engineered wetlands at the Mackinaw River, are proof-of-concept projects designed to improve the health of the larger system. These projects have really established the Conservancy in Illinois as a cornerstone of the GRP.

What river conservation milestones has the Great Rivers Partnership achieved in the last year?

Michael Reuter:

For the Mississippi River, connecting our strategies on the upper and lower reaches has been a significant development. We're fortunate to have new funding for critical projects in the region from the McKnight Foundation and the Monsanto Company, which builds on the generous lead grant provided by Caterpillar. I'm particularly excited about our work with all partners in the agricultural industry to test and expand sustainable agriculture practices. And our collective potential to shift agricultural policies and programs in support of large scale replication to reduce nutrient inputs into the Gulf of Mexico.

In China, the U.S. Geological Survey has been a great partner with the Yangtze Water Resources Commission and the Yangtze Fisheries Commission to develop and share ideas related to monitoring the health of large river systems and the Yangtze River in particular. We've had foreign officials from both China and the Magdalena River in Colombia visit our programs in Illinois to learn from our successes and failures. We believe that well-designed scientific exchanges can make a difference for everyone involved.

Can you tell us about your recent involvement with Mollicy Farms in Louisiana? How does this project relate to the GRP?

Michael Reuter:

The Mollicy Farms project is similar to the floodplain restoration projects in Illinois at Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms, only on a larger scale. At Mollicy Farms, which is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we've been able to help restore a connection between about 20,000 acres of floodplain and the Ouachita River, a key tributary to the Mississippi River. This has happened at a much faster pace due to the more natural hydrology that exists on the Ouachita River, but a lot of good information about how to approach the project and set goals came from Emiquon. I'd say a real scientific exchange has taken place there — a great example of the kind of comprehensive work the GRP is designed to enable.

What are the most significant issues facing the rivers in the GRP in the next year?

Michael Reuter:

A lot of the world's rivers are facing the same big issues, examples include:

  • the risk to water quality due in part to an expansion of commodity agriculture, such as corn and soybeans, necessary to meet an increasing demand;
  • heightened and more erratic flooding, potentially exacerbated by climate change;
  • decreased water security as drought issues intensify in more arid climates; and
  • invasions by non-native species.

One aspect of the GRP that has made it unique from other conservation projects is the Great Rivers Center. Can you tell us about that?

Michael Reuter:

The Great Rivers Center was designed to encourage communication and collaboration between the different projects on the rivers that make up the GRP. The Yangtze-Mississippi exchange is one example of that. We are now working with partners to consider ways to expand the influence of the Center. On the Mississippi our goal is to support systems-based management — addressing the many needs and perspectives on the river with the science and information in a way that leads to the development of a shared vision for sustainability. But we don't want to treat the Mississippi in isolation — we can accelerate our learning, and greatly inform the sustainable management of other great rivers, if we continue to build this global network.

Michael Reuter is the Senior Director of Central U.S. Conservation Strategies. His expertise is in conservation strategies and policies related to preserving and restoring large floodplain rivers. Based in Peoria, Illinois, Reuter has been a leader for more than 15 years in local and regional efforts to conserve the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.


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