Ravaging and Revitalizing: The Story of the Northern Illinois Watershed – Chapter 5

Chapter 5: Moving Forward

The history of the Illinois watershed offers many lessons. When the health of the land takes a backseat to the growth of an area, problems are sure to follow. Rapid development can have damaging effects, especially when compounded by decisions that ignore environmental impacts. As Native people were forcibly and tragically removed from their homelands, replaced by rapid population growth and dizzying land development, the drastic change has had lasting effects on the watershed, effects only now being addressed through a more holistic approach. In short, with exponentially more people using more resources and producing more byproducts, a plan that doesn’t acknowledge and address all these human-made problems cannot be successful.

Decades of attempts have proven that simply managing stormwater once the storm is happening isn’t enough. With over-developed land, simply shifting the water downstream only pushes the issue elsewhere, causing damage to the environment along the way as the streams carry contaminants across the region. Instead, the key to effective management of stormwater runoff is to reduce the amount of stormwater generated in the first place by maintaining and working with the hydrology of a site and managing stormwater at the source.

Civil engineers and scientists from WBK Engineering, headquartered in St. Charles, Illinois, are working with municipalities, governmental agencies, and environmental organizations to develop a holistic approach to the problem. “By determining the amount of land that needs to remain natural to take advantage of its innate absorption and filtering qualities,” comments John Witte, WBK Civil Engineering Practice Lead, “we can better manage development and better understand how to mitigate the damage our society has done.” While we can’t undo the impact of a metropolitan area the size of Chicagoland overnight, we can move toward the honorable harvest approach for how we live and grow.

For centuries before European settlers arrived, Native tribes lived in unison with the land, honoring it and their part in the circle. With this as a guiding principle, WBK Engineering is honored to play a role alongside many as the Illinois watershed is undergoing a transformation. With cleaner water and more food sources for the surrounding ecosystem once again, the land itself is providing healthier resources back to its inhabitants, human, animal, and plant alike.

Resources for Environmental Sustainability and Conservation

Ravaging and Revitalizing: The Story of the Northern Illinois Watershed – Chapter 4

Chapter 4: A Return to Nature

“We need acts of restoration, not only for our polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world, we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgement of the rest of the earth’s beings.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, excerpt from “Braiding Sweetgrass”

As commercial development and rapid population growth of the Chicagoland area in the 20th century took its toll on the land and surrounding ecosystems, it was clear a holistic change was needed. The waters of the northern Illinois watershed that once flowed through the area like arteries through a body were unhealthy and polluted. Local governments and conservation organizations needed big thinkers to plan and model large-scale changes to the land and how it is cared for.

One example is Spring Brook Creek that runs within the St. James Farm and Blackwell Forest Preserves of the DuPage River watershed. What had become stagnant, channelized, human-made ditches needed a transformation, a return to the lively, moving waters of before. To accomplish this, WBK Engineering of St. Charles, Illinois, was brought in to help revitalize over two miles of land and return it to a natural state, creating an environment for the surrounding ecosystem to once again thrive.

John Witte, Civil Engineering Practice Lead at WBK, outlines the issue: “The areas around Chicago are a naturally wet area, with a Great Lake and many rivers encompassing the region. The waters are all interconnected, most ultimately flowing into the Mississippi River. Spring Brook is a natural stream that was degraded and channelized to facilitate agriculture.”

The first step in restoration was taking the stagnant, human-made ditches and re-meandering them back into winding, moving streams, spreading the water throughout the preserve. Through this work, the coastline went from 2,000 feet to 3,200, with deep bends accentuating the turns. Using hydraulic modeling, WBK scientists, including Witte, were able to include a variety of natural features such as “riffles” ,adding rocks and other natural elements at strategic spots in the stream to rouse the water, encouraging healthy oxygenation and the removal of excess water-borne nutrients. “This also creates micro-organisms within the water,” Witte explains, “creating more food sources for the many varieties of fish in the streams.”

Scientists then worked to bring back native plant-life, including blue flag iris and rose mallow, replacing the grasses that were brought over from Europe that did little to offer nutrition for the surrounding wildlife. With clean water and new food sources, animals began to return to their former homes.

Perhaps most importantly, the work by WBK Engineering reconnected the stream to the greater floodplain, allowing for a more fully developed ecosystem to thrive. The waterway became a fish passage once again, thanks to the removal of a small dam and the regrading of a very steep stretch of stream.

This revitalization of the area is of great benefit to plants and animals alike, and it also transformed it into a wildlife getaway for people to experience the natural beauty of the area once again. The re-meandering and addition of the riffles brought back the sound of moving water. Witte explains the benefit, “Moving water is healthier water and creates a calming soundtrack for nature explorers taking advantage of the redesigned trails and bridges which were also part of the project.” With a vibrant, clean stream, the sounds of bird songs soon returned, as the surrounding environment is slowly responding to the area’s re-naturalization.

Living in an urban center like Chicago and its busy suburbs, it’s difficult to get a full appreciation for the calm and beauty of the world. Less than an hour outside the city, away from the trains and traffic, Spring Brook now serves as a nature reserve getaway for fresh air and exploration. As part of the revitalization efforts, new paths and bridges allow nature lovers to safely and unobtrusively discover the thriving ecosystem of animals, plants and water living in balance.

Ravaging and Revitalizing: The Story of the Northern Illinois Watershed – Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Altered Landscapes

As tribes were pushed west, European settlers began to alter the land to their benefit. Rivers were dredged, factories and mills dumped contaminants into the waterways below, and increased sewage waste from a quickly growing population proved a serious health issue to the surrounding watershed. Without clean water, plants died, animals were forced to find new ecosystems away from agricultural, industrial, and commercial development, and the environment took a backseat to economic advancement.

The city of Chicago experienced unprecedented growth. From an official population of 4,470 in 1840, the area passed 100,000 by 1860, 500,000 by 1880, and a million by 1890. In the second largest city in the United States, development was in full swing, and it came with its fair share of environmental problems.

Population growth in northeastern Illinois, 1850-2010 (from Karstensen and others, 2013).

With nearby Lake Michigan just two feet below the riverbanks, effective drainage was nearly impossible and sewage and other contaminants flowed into the area’s rivers, creating health hazards across the region. In 1834, the first attempt to solve the sanitation problem included a drainage ditch dug to carry wastewater into the Chicago River, but the river could not cleanse itself of the sewage due to the high level of Lake Michigan. This continued to be an issue throughout the 1800s, as the high lake level proved to be a health hazard every time a hard storm hit, carrying the surrounding area’s pollution and sewage into the watershed, flowing from river to river throughout the region.

“The issue was more than simply too many people,” explains John Witte, Civil Engineering Practice Lead at WBK Engineering in St. Charles, Illinois. “The problem with rapid land development is two-fold; not only does it mean there are more people producing more by-products, there’s also less permeable land available as the vegetation that would normally assist in the absorption and flow of excess water has been cut away, replaced by concrete and buildings.” The Chicago area soon found its breaking point as there was no place left for the water to be directed.

In 1879, following another major instance of sewage and contaminants pouring into the water, the Farm Drainage Act was enacted, creating “drainage districts” to designate areas for water to drain. By 1929, with Chicago’s population having surpassed three million, there were 88 drainage districts covering 177,595 acres within the Chicago River, Little Calumet River, Des Plaines River, DuPage River, and Fox River basins. By 1971, there were 180.

By the 1960s, a new solution was presented. The Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) resulted in 109 miles of tunnels within the Mainstem, Calumet, Des Plaines, and Upper Des Plaines systems, capturing 85% of the combined sewer overflows which had been discharging into rivers and streams.

Local, state, and federal agencies and individuals have become increasingly aware of the unmitigated impacts of urbanization on drainage and flooding. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District implemented the first stormwater detention ordinance in 1972. This ordinance required new developments to detain a portion of the increased runoff and to restrict the outlet capacity of the detention basin to a predevelopment discharge. However, flood damages continued to wreak havoc on the region, causing home and property damage as water levels rose during great storms, halting public services and interrupting daily life far too often.

In the 1980s, significantly damaging storms in back-to-back years, 1986 and 1987, pushed public awareness of the continued problems enough for the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation authorizing the formation of regionwide stormwater management programs. This change in philosophy, to more forward-thinking, proactive measures, allows for stormwater management planning, watershed planning, regulation of construction within floodplain areas, and new sources of funding to manage local drainage and flooding problems.

Witte explains the importance of a new way of looking at the issue. “If you wait until a large storm hits before you begin to manage the rising water levels, you’re too late. Weather is a constant and not something you can control. And with climate change,” adds Witte, “it’s becoming increasingly unpredictable, so it’s paramount to have a plan for managing the water before it’s damaging homes and spreading pollutants.”

Emphasis on proactively caring for the land, rather than chasing solutions after the fact, is the first step to returning the Illinois watershed to the vibrant ecosystem it was centuries before when Native tribes emphasized a relationship of reciprocity between the land and its inhabitants.

Thankfully, priorities have begun to shift, and eyes are being opened to our ability to give back to the earth, such as helping a polluted, stagnant swamp to be restored to a lush, natural environment once again flush with wildlife.

Ravaging and Revitalizing: The Story of the Northern Illinois Watershed – Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Land Unharmed

Chicago and its surrounding area are located on the ancestral lands of many Indigenous tribes, including the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Fox, Ho-Chunk, Illinois, Kickapoo, Miami, Menominee, and Sac Nations. For many centuries, even millennia, before Europeans arrived on the continent, tribes lived in reciprocity with the land – growing crops, hunting game and using these resources for sustenance and trade. Artifacts have been discovered in the area dating from 6500 B.C., highlighting the area’s long history as the homeland of Indigenous people.

Skokie Public Library, originally via https://indigenoushistory.wordpress.com/

This era was marked by a symbiotic relationship between land and inhabitant, the people were taught never to take more than needed from the earth. There is a term in some Native cultures for this deep respect for the life-giving elements the land offers called “Honorable Harvest.” It is the recognition that in order to survive, you must take from other living elements of the land to sustain yourself, and you must do so in the most honorable and respectful way possible, giving back as you take.

While there are no set “rules” for this way of living, Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist, member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and author of “Braiding Sweetgrass,” offers some guiding principles:

    • Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
    • Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
    • Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
    • Never take the first. Never take the last.
    • Take only what you need. Take only that which is given.
    • Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
    • Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
    • Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
    • Share.
    • Give thanks for what you have been given.
    • Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
    • Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

This way of giving honor to the living elements of the earth allows for a holistic view of one’s place in the world, allowing a greater appreciation of the gifts received each day. John Witte, Civil Engineering Practice Lead at WBK Engineering in St. Charles, Illinois, further explains, “Becoming a conscious part of the consumption and creation cycle led to a deep relationship with and knowledge of the land that sustained Native life for centuries.” WBK has a unique viewpoint to this history, as it is part of the Bodwé Group, a family of architecture and engineering firms wholly owned by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. “The work we do, and more importantly, how we accomplish it, is heavily influenced by our Tribal connections. Above all, we are dedicated to shaping and restoring the land in ways that are respectful and protective of our natural abundance.”

As European settlers began to arrive in the 1670s, the majority of Native tribes did not see them as an immediate threat, even choosing to share their immense knowledge of the land and its waters with the new inhabitants. Witte provides an example, “Members of the Miami tribe guided French explorers to a portage between the Des Plaines, Chicago, and Illinois Rivers where watercraft could easily be transported from one river to another.”

Chicago grew rapidly as a population center because of its strategic location between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River. “Even beyond that,” adds Witte, “by carrying their boats over a ridge in what is now Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, traders could reach the St. Lawrence River to the north, Allegheny River in the east, Gulf of Mexico in the south, and the Rocky Mountains to the west.”

This geography helped Chicago become a Midwest metropolis, but not without additional Native assistance. Kittahawa, a Potawatomi woman, and her husband Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, were important liaisons between tribes and explorers, setting up a busy trading post for Native American trappers and European traders. Intermarriages became common, a sign of how cooperative the relations were during this time.

Trade relationships helped maintain relative harmony throughout the 1700s, until the War of 1812 significantly affected the region. The Treaty of Ghent between the British and United States ended the war, but largely ignored protections for the tribes who fought alongside the British. This reinforced the mistrust between the sides, and relations quickly crumbled as the British no longer felt a strategic advantage to cooperating with tribes following a shift toward commercial agriculture and industry for the area.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, forcing tens of thousands of Indigenous people west of the Mississippi River. This was just the first of many forced relocations in the coming decades, as tribes were moved from land to land, treaties broken as soon as they were signed.

Relocation was a tragic undertaking for the tribes and their people. Some estimate that more than 100,000 men, women, children, and elders were pushed west of the Mississippi, to states including Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Oklahoma. Many didn’t survive the journey, and those who did were settled into unfamiliar land, short on resources and supplies for long-term sustainability. This began a cycle of trauma, poverty, and difficult living conditions that, unfortunately for many, continue into today.

Ravaging and Revitalizing: The Story of the Northern Illinois Watershed – Chapter 1

Ravaging & Revitalizing: The Story of the Illinois Watershed

Chapter 1: The Circle Begins

The circle is an important symbol in Native American culture. It speaks to the cyclical processes of the natural world. It represents the elements of the sky, the change in seasons, and life’s journey from birth to death. The story of the Illinois watershed is itself a circle. Long ago, the land was lush with natural flowing waters, giving life to the ecosystem around it. The Indigenous tribes who called what is now known as northern Illinois home lived in harmony with the land, treating it as the living being it is, sustaining its life as the land sustained their own.

Indigenous peoples used the land to grow, hunt, and harvest fruit, vegetables, and game for nourishment, using the entirety of the plants and animals for food, clothing, and supplies, careful not to harm the environment that supplied them with their way of life. For centuries, they lived in the area and thrived as part of the ecosystem.

During the late 1600s, European settlers moved into the region, and through a series of battles and broken treaties, slowly drove the Native people from their homelands, resettling them time after time on less desirable lands with fewer natural resources. Over the next several centuries, the new inhabitants altered the landscape, taking from and abusing the land as populations grew and more resources were needed.

Rapid population growth led to expansive development of land. As more people came, agriculture and industry took precedence, and the natural balance of the land suffered. Pollution and flooding ravaged the watershed. Wildlife was forced to find new ecosystems as areas became uninhabitable for most species due to a lack of clean water and food sources.

Over the next week, we’ll detail the story of the Illinois watershed, from its long history of Indigenous people living in harmony with the land, to its period of rapid growth and damage following European settlement, to the impressive work being done to return it to its natural state. Going full circle, this is the story of the ravaging and revitalization of the Illinois watershed, in the following installments:

  • Chapter 2: Land Unharmed
  • Chapter 3: Altered Landscapes
  • Chapter 4: A Return to Nature
  • Chapter 5: Looking Forward