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Spring Science Chronicles

It was just over a year ago that historic flooding on the Illinois River damaged homes and businesses in Peoria and overtopped levees at The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms preserves.

While our wetland restorations took on water that helped relieve the pressure on local communities, what effects did the flooding have on the wetlands themselves? That’s the question this natural event gave scientists the opportunity to ask and, with the right research, to answer and share with the restoration community at large. Answers to this and related questions become increasingly important as we think about the use of these restored floodplain areas to help abate flood damages.

Immediately following the flooding, two Conservancy partners—the University of Illinois-Springfield and the Illinois Natural History Survey—applied for a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation to study the short-term effects of the floods on our two floodplain restoration sites—Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms. RAPID funding is used for investigations that have a severe urgency, including the kind of quick-response research needed for natural disasters and similar unanticipated events.

Once the team secured funding, they got to work studying how plant, fish and bird populations at Emiquon and Spunky Bottoms were affected by the 2013 floods. While the research is still underway, they have their hypotheses generated: at Emiquon where flooding was minimal, the team expects plant and bird communities to remain relatively steady, while the much more extensive flooding at Spunky Bottoms will have wiped out most vegetation. They also expect to see high turnover in the fish community at Spunky, with Asian carp finding their way into the preserve and native fish swimming out to the Illinois River.

Once the research is complete, their findings will allow the team to understand exactly how wetland restorations rebound in the face of extreme flooding, and what the tradeoffs are for wildlife and habitat when wetlands take on water that can mitigate damage to local communities.

With extreme weather events like this expected to become more common, this is knowledge other floodplain managers will benefit from, which is why these findings will be presented at the World Environmental and Water Resources Congress in June. Nani Bhowmink, a member of the Conservancy’s Illinois Chapter’s Science Advisory Committee, arranged for Emiquon to be featured in two papers presented by Conservancy staff and partners to an audience that includes attendees from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Additionally, Doug Blodgett, Illinois Director of River Conservation, will also present at the American Society of Floodplain Managers annual meeting that same week.

“As we get people thinking about floodplain management, this good example helps us consider the tradeoffs and benefits not only to plant and animal communities, but to people and property as well,” said Blodgett.

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