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.

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