In July of 2016, water flowed from The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon preserve near Lewistown, Illinois into the Illinois River, reconnecting the floodplain to the river for the first time in 95 years.
“It has always been our goal to have Emiquon contribute to the ecological health of the Illinois River, and after 15 years in the making, this is a big step forward for Emiquon, the Illinois River, and conservation science,” said Doug Blodgett, the Illinois chapter’s director of river conservation.
Restoring an Essential Connection
In the early 1900s, the Illinois River was one of North America’s most ecologically and economically significant river systems. Emiquon was the jewel of this river, nurturing diverse and abundant communities of native plants and animals in the complex system of backwater wetlands and lakes. But as the need for agricultural land increased, the floodplain at Emiquon was leveed and drained, and its rich soil converted into farm fields. The Conservancy bought the preserve in 2000 and began the process of restoring the land to a working floodplain in 2007.
“We invested seven years collaborating with partners such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Army Corps of Engineers, Illinois Natural History Survey, Dickson Mounds Museum, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, US Fish and Wildlife Service, University of Illinois Springfield, and Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway on the restoration plans,” said Doug. “When the time came to turn off the pumps that were draining the land, it was incredible to see how quickly the water, plants and wildlife returned.”
Today, Emiquon is a thriving, 6,700-acre complex that provides habitat for hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl, native plant communities, and 40 species of native fish. It is enjoyed by both tourists and the local community alike as a place to fish, paddle, hike, and connect with nature. But to stay healthy, Emiquon needs to be connected to the river.
“The connection provides natural seasonal water variations that native plants and animals rely on, and it helps keep the quality of the wetland from degrading.” Doug said. “The completion of the construction, which we’ve been working on since spring 2015 is the next step in this restoration process.”
Improving Water Management
The water control structure is named Ahsapa — which means “web” in Myaamia, the language used by the land’s early inhabitants — to represent the reconnection of Emiquon and the Illinois River. The connection itself consists of two gated, concrete pathways through the levee at Emiquon that can be opened or closed to allow or prevent the flow of water between the wetland and the river. It provides critically important water management capabilities at the preserve that were previously lacking.
“We need to be able to manage the water levels at Emiquon not only for the health of the preserve, but for our neighbors and the local community to help insure drainage of their farmlands and protection from flooding,” Doug explained.
In addition, the structure contains features designed especially for science, including four sampling bays where scientists can monitor water quality and movements of plants and animals between Emiquon and the Illinois River and carry out other research.
“We have scientists from across the country coming to conduct studies at Emiquon,” Doug said. “Because of the structure’s unique design, it affords a ‘treatment and control’ set up that is rare to find in the field.”
Impact Beyond Illinois
As one of the largest floodplain restoration projects in the Midwest and the premiere demonstration site for the Conservancy’s within the Upper Mississippi River system, the research opportunities and lessons learned from the reconnection will help guide large floodplain river restoration efforts around the world. The structure that connects Emiquon to the river and provides water management capabilities at the preserve was made possible by the support of many partners and the generous support of donors such as Brenda Shapiro, who is a member of the Conservancy’s global board of trustees.