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That interplay of the river and the wetlands produced  an amazingly complex and productive web of habitats and organisms. But over the past century and a half, four million acres of wetlands in the Illinois River Basin have been lost to agriculture and other development.


Status Report

Wetlands 101
Rebirth in a large river floodplain
creates a vast laboratory for learning

by Mike Lemke and Keith Miller

Preserve gets final approval

To experience the historic floodplain called the Emiquon Preserve, cross the Illinois River on State Route 78 west out of Havana, head north and cross Spoon River. To the right, a broad valley stretches from the highway east toward the Illinois River, which is about two miles beyond the tree-lined levees that kept the bottomland dry for row crops eight decades or so. The landscape is flat and expansive.

And that land is about to return to its predeveloped, natural state of shallow lakes. The final government hurdle was crossed last fall when most of the 7,100 acres owned by The Nature Conservancy were enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program, an initiative under the federal farm bill that offers landowners payment for converting farmland back to natural habitat.

The program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has purchased a 30-year conservation easement on 6,285 acres. Funds from this purchase have helped The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that preserves plants, animals and natural communities, retire much of its debt from the project.

Completing that bureaucratic process allows the conservancy and its partners to open a new chapter at Emiquon with the help of university students. The University of Illinois at Springfield will build its Emiquon Field Station on a low bluff overlooking the area where the wetlands will form again. Faculty and students from UIS, and scientists from all over the world, will be able to use the facilities and information gathered at the field station to better understand the science of the floodplain.

This uncommon broad expanse was created some 15,000 years ago when the Wisconsin glacier started melting behind levee-like moraines, forming a huge lake. The dam broke, creating a spectacular flood. Imagine the contents of one of the Great Lakes draining out in a couple of days. The massive flow from that flood carved out a broad channel, through which the river now flows. Historic pulses of flood waters had a wide effect along the Illinois River — a foot increase in water depth flooded a great distance over the nearly flat landscape. That interplay of the river and the wetlands produced an amazingly complex and productive web of habitats and organisms. But over the past century and a half, four million acres of wetlands in the Illinois River Basin have been lost to agriculture and other development.

In the first phase of ecological restoration, The Nature Conservancy plans to manage the area to re-establish shallow-lake and wetland environments similar to what existed before levees cut the Emiquon property off from the river. A second phase of restoration will do what many other wetland restoration projects cannot — reconnect to the ever-changing river. On almost all of the Emiquon Preserve, 2006 was the last year for crops to be planted. Drainage pumps will shut down and water will return.

At this critical moment, as the preserve is transformed, UIS's Emiquon Field Station will measure, record and experiment to help tell the scientific story. Because major changes are about to occur to the ecology of the area, it is vital to establish a baseline of information about the land, the water and the organisms at Emiquon. This data can be used to better understand the changes that occur as the area is transformed. Biologists constantly monitor temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen levels and other vital signs, using equipment donated by YSI Inc., a Yellow Springs, Ohio-based water quality monitoring company. The first set of instruments is under water at Emiquon, and readings from those instruments are available on the Web at livedata.html. Scientists plan more such YSI installations to keep a constant electronic eye on environmental changes.

Ongoing projects will continue to document details about the land and the organisms. Faculty and students from the UIS Biology Department have been monitoring water quality and microbial populations in and around Emiquon for more than three years. They have analyzed Illinois River environmental data, including nine years of samples in the LaGrange Reach. A UIS student in the Environmental Studies Department has done a seed bank study using soil from the floodplain.

Biologists expect to get a better understanding of microbial ecology in the floodplain from a collaborative project with Brazilian scientists who study the Paraná River. UIS scientists also will examine carbon sequestration — a key factor in reducing greenhouse gasses — at Emiquon before and after the restoration. A Web-based database of scientific data gathered at Emiquon will help coordinate and disseminate information about discoveries before, and after, the transformation begins. And soon, university scientists plan to install an "eagle cam" on the Emiquon property to document a bald eagle nest.

The field station already has established a tradition of interdisciplinary research and education on the Illinois River floodplain. UIS faculty have developed and taught an online course about the history and science of Emiquon. In the near future, UIS plans to offer students online courses that will include intense field work at Emiquon or on the Illinois River.

Last fall, the UIS biology department led a Bioblitz, a one-day celebration of biodiversity. The event brought students, scientists and interested citizens to Emiquon to collect samples and begin analyses. This spring, the field station will host a workshop on land management practices, a meeting funded by the Lumpkin Family Foundation, which supports environmental protection efforts.

Yet major questions remain about the restoration of Emiquon. Before the levees were built, the wetlands were seamlessly connected to the Illinois River. But the Illinois River has undergone extensive changes during the past 80 years, and it is not clear what kind of connection will allow the most natural habitat for the wetlands — without the disruptions of invasive species and artificial hydrology introduced by river dredging and levees. Will plant seeds dormant for eight decades bloom when water covers them? Will the water quality of the Illinois River improve as the wetlands are connected?

The Nature Conservancy and scientists interested in Emiquon are closely watching a smaller restoration project 50 miles downstream that was started in 1999. In the Merwin Preserve at Spunky Bottoms in Brown County, native plants have reappeared from the seed bank, and other indigenous species have been replanted successfully. River otters, cricket frogs and thousands of waterfowl have returned to the area.

This wetland has not yet been reconnected to the river, though there are plans for a controlled connection sometime in the near future.

Naturalists and scientists are eager to see how this reconnection affects the flora and fauna that already have gained a foothold in the newly restored area, and to adapt knowledge gained there to the Emiquon project.

The Emiquon Preserve is an amazing place at a remarkable time. It isn't clear exactly what we will see in five, 10 or 30 years, but the people in charge of the restoration are confident that Emiquon will be dramatically changed from what we see today. In the wet seasons, we expect that Thompson Lake and Flag Lake, long dormant under rows of corn, will re-emerge. If the Spunky Bottoms experience proves to be prophetic, the area will be teeming with wildlife and vegetation.

The changes at Emiquon will grow from a complex effort spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy, aided by federal land management funds and guided by scientific researchers. The floodplain of the Illinois River is becoming a focal point in a significant "feel good" story of ecological renewal. With luck, it will become an example of the ways that governments, scientists and private organizations can cooperate in a grand design to live more gently with the land.

Mike Lemke and Keith Miller, University of Illinois at Springfield professors, are the director and associate director, respectively, of the Emiquon Field Station.

Illinois Issues, January 2007

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