Photo © Kelvin Sampson
Restoring the Illinois River
Emiquon, the place Native Americans named for their word meaning “squash” or “spoon,” became known as the “Jewel of the Illinois River” to biologists familiar with its abundant fish, mussels and waterfowl. The 7,100-acre preserve an hour downstream from Peoria once ranked among the biologically richest wetlands in Illinois and throughout the world.
The biological diversity of Emiquon’s wetlands, forests and tallgrass prairies attracted people here for thousands of years and hundreds of generations. Emiquon’s ability to provide food, water, and shelter for wildlife made it a natural place for people to settle, from ancient native tribes to contemporary farmers who plowed the land for most of the 20th century. But this use of the land changed it, isolating it from the Illinois River and preventing it from functioning as a natural floodplain.
A Wetland is Reborn
In spring 2007, The Nature Conservancy turned off the pumps that had dried out the land since the 1920s. Within months, water reappeared in the historic beds of Thompson and Flag lakes, drowning the nearly century-old cornfields, and native plants began pushing up through the soil, where their seeds had lain dormant for years. The transformation from agriculture to wetland went quickly, though the work is far from over.
The ultimate goal at Emiquon is to improve the ecological health of the Illinois River by restoring this rich landscape to a functional floodplain. One critical step in this plan is to reconnect the floodplain to the Illinois River, which requires careful management of invasive species like Asian carp. Scientists also monitor the waters for changes in pH level, oxygen and chlorophyll concentration, as well as recording the depth, transparency and temperature.
A Living Laboratory
Emiquon is more than a story of rebirth; it is a living laboratory, one of the best places in the United States to study wetland restoration. In April 2008, the University of Illinois–Springfield opened the Emiquon Field Station, providing learning opportunities for students, educators, researchers and the public. A science symposium held every year gives partners, students and scientists a chance to learn and discuss the future of freshwater conservation, from theory to results. Emiquon has served as a model for other freshwater restoration projects, like Mollicy Farms in Louisiana, where a similar reconnection project is underway.
Once part of the most productive inland fishery in the United States, Emiquon’s former cornfields are now rich in fish, with more than 30 species in Thompson Lake, including grass pickerel, redear sunfish and bowfin. While native plants re-emerged naturally with the rebirth of Thompson Lake, fish needed to be added by hand. The Conservancy signed a cooperative fisheries management agreement with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in 2007, and as a result of this agreement, nearly 2 million fish were stocked in Emiquon’s waters. Conservation specialists carefully collected many of these species themselves since many are not available from hatcheries.
Within two years of turning off the pump that dried out the farmland, The Nature Conservancy began providing limited fishing and boating opportunities here to the community. More than just a recreational pastime, Emiquon shows people how conservation works for people and for nature.
The Evolution Continues
Emiquon transformed quickly from cornfield to wetland, but the evolution continues today. The former “jewel of the Illinois River” is being polished: Thompson Lake now swells to more than 4,000 acres during spring rains, bald eagles regularly winter here and the “whuk whuk” of tens of thousands of snow geese fills the air during their winter migration. Conservation staff maintain plantings, stock fish, monitor birds and plants, and are executing a plan for improving the area for visitors. By creating a successful model of large-floodplain river restoration, Emiquon shows that effective conservation for people and nature can be applied up and down the Illinois River and beyond.