The Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA) is partnering with Openlands, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Forest Preserve Districts of Cook, Will, and DuPage Counties, Land and Water Resources, Inc., the U.S. Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation, the Wetlands Initiative and other partners to restore and enhance wetlands in the Chicagoland region.
The O'Hare Modernization Program necessitated the replacement of wetlands at O'Hare International Airport that were small, isolated, and of poor ecological value. The CDA is restoring and enhancing nearly three times the wetland area affected requiring restoration at eight locations throughout the region. These sites connect to existing wetlands and will enhance their size, quality, and ecological function, multiplying the benefits of the wetlands restoration program several times over. Restoring wetlands will improve local water quality, absorb carbon dioxide, provide valuable habitat for wildlife, and connect people with nature.
The CDA is committed to balancing the inevitable growth of the region with the responsibility we share to protect and care for our open spaces and natural resources for generations to come. The way we use land has a direct impact on whether rainwater stays in our region or travels far away. After the European settlement, farmers installed extensive drainage tiles to dry out their fields in order to extend the growing season. Drainage tiles are actually pipes that are placed underground to move water to ditches and streams.
A key step to wetland restoration projects is to restore natural hydrologic processes by disabling drainage tiles. Water can then be stored in the ground for longer periods of time, helping to prevent flooding downstream.
When rain can't soak into the ground it runs off of impervious surfaces such as roads, rooftops, sidewalks, and parking lots, turning into storm water. The storm water makes its way into sewers, ditches and streams, presenting a flooding hazard to homes and businesses. Storm water from O'Hare International Airport will eventually travel to the Illinois River, the Mississippi, and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying and depositing pollutants and sediments along its course.
Wetland restoration projects play a significant role in fostering sustainable land use in urban settings by creating a balance of developed and open space. Healthy natural areas are largely self-sustaining, but in our fragmented landscape they need our continued stewardship and broad-based public support.
Restoring wetlands and protecting their surrounding natural areas is vital for creating educational, recreational, and beautiful nature preserves. By replanting grasses, sedges, and other native species, the CDA and its partners are creating vibrant, healthy wetland ecosystems that foster the return of wildlife such as soras, Virginia rails, yellow-headed blackbirds, mink, muskrats, and several other species. Since Chicago is a major migratory flyway, the restored wetlands provide a valuable resting spot for large populations of herons, egrets, and other birds passing over the City. The wetlands also serve as a resting spot for those of us who visit, offering respite from the urban world and an opportunity to be immersed in the same unique landscape that covered our region for centuries.
The name and location of the eight wetland sites that the CDA is helping to restore are described below.
West Branch Forest Preserve
Bartlett, DuPage County
When the Wisconsin Glacier retreated 10,000 years ago, it left behind a U-shaped valley 30 miles west of Lake Michigan on the banks of the DuPage River's West Branch. Wet prairies, marshes and fens were prevalent, but when farmers started to drain the soil for pastures and crops, conditions changed. Centuries-old wetlands evaporated and aggressive, woody plants like buckthorn and box elder replaced species of grasses, sedges and flowers.
The DuPage County Forest Preserve acquired the land for flood control in the 1970s and established the West Branch Forest Preserve. In 2006, the CDA partnered with the DuPage County Forest Preserve District to remove underground drainage tiles and restore 350 acres of the 811 acre preserve, including re-meandering a creek and creating 120 acres of new wetlands.
The West Branch Forest Preserve is located south of Army Trail Road in Bartlett. The preserve is a popular location for fishing and picnicking and provides trails for hiking, dog-walking, skiing, biking, and horseback riding.
Hyde Lake Wetlands
Chicago, Cook County
Hyde Lake, once around 500 acres in the 1890's, was degraded by slag deposits from nearby industrial facilities over the course of several decades. All that remained of the marsh was 12 acres heavily inundated with non-native purple loosestrife, an invasive weed that was choking out native species of wetland plants.
Now, the Hyde Lake Wetlands are part of the City's Calumet Open Space Reserve, a plan to protect 3,900 acres of natural habitat in the Calumet area. The CDA is supporting the effort to protect and restore the Hyde Lake wetlands, a vital connector of nearly 40 acres between Wolf Lake and Indian Creek. The wetlands and open lands are being restored to maximize habitat for wildlife and to provide visitors with the opportunity to enjoy the City's largest nature preserve.
The Hyde Lake Wetlands, now 40 acres along Indian Creek, provide a unique urban nature preserve as part of the Wolf Lake Unit of the Reserve.
Hadley Valley Preserve
Joliet, Will County
The CDA, the Forest Preserve District of Will County, Openlands, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, City of Joliet and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources partnered to protect and restore more than 500 acres of wetlands at Hadley Valley Preserve, improving water quality and developing public access for 8 miles of multi-use trails along Spring Creek. Previously, Spring Creek was straightened and used as a drainage ditch when the land was farmed. Thanks to the collaborative effort, Spring Creek was restored to its natural flow. The re-meandered creek reduces flooding and recharges a shallow aquifer which provides a significant portion of Joliet's drinking water supply.
Lily Cache Wetland Bank
Bolingbrook, Will County
Prior to restoration, Lily Cache Wetland Bank consisted of a 124-acre farm field that was extensively tiled and graded. Both Lily Cache Creek and its tributary had been ditched to allow for farming within the floodplain.
By cooperating with Land and Water Resources, Inc. (LAWR), the CDA's wetlands combine with other restored wetlands at Lily Cache to create over 81 acre-feet of flood storage (105 total wetland acres).
Lily Cache Wetland Bank is now a popular bird watching site for local bird enthusiasts, a sanctuary for wildlife, part of the Bolingbrook Park District's regional bike trail, and a healthy tributary to the Des Plaines River. Over 124 plant species were identified at the site in only the second year of growth.
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Wilmington, Will County
Although Illinois is known as the Prairie State, less than 0.01% of its original 21 million acres of prairie remains. The CDA is partnering with the U.S. Forest Service, Openlands, the National Forest Foundation, and the Wetlands Initiative to reverse this loss of historic prairie and wetland ecosystems at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Established in 1996, Midewin is the first U.S. Forest Service National Tallgrass Prairie and is in the midst of a major 10-year effort to restore more than 19,000 acres to a native Illinois prairie.
The U.S. Forest Service's 10-year restoration plan includes removing bunkers and army infrastructure, restoring trails, building an outdoor learning center, removing invasive species and installing more than 100 species of native plants. and may even include reintroducing bison. Through the partnership, the CDA is contributing to the restoration of the Drummond Floodplain Wetland within Midewin to re-establish natural hydrology and help improve water quality in the 22 miles of streams that cut across the property.
Once the U.S. Army Joliet Arsenal, one of the world's largest ammunition plants, Midewin is now the largest protected open space in northeastern Illinois and is located only an hour's drive from Chicago. So far, 9,100 acres of Midewin and 29 miles of trails are open to the public.
Messenger Woods Nature Preserve
Homer Glen, Will County
Ecological restoration activities at Messenger Woods Nature Preserve are bringing back 90 acres of healthy wetland ecosystems that clean water, reduce flooding in the surrounding area, and enhance groundwater recharge. The land has historically been drained, grazed, and farmed; these restoration efforts will return it to a natural landscape.
Tinley Creek Forest Preserve
Tinley Park, Cook County
The CDA's and Openlands support of the restoration efforts at Tinley Creek Forest Preserve are providing important habitat for diverse wildlife, including grassland and migratory birds. The 426-acre site has the second-largest number of nesting Bobolinks documented in the state; about 170 are counted each summer. By planting native species and removing drainage tiles, this former lake-plain land formed by historical Lake Chicago is returning to its naturally wet condition, while recharging rainwater into the ground. The Tinley Creek project and the adjacent Bartel Grassland will connect to result in an 800-acre continuous grassland complex.
Deer Grove Forest Preserve-East
Palatine, Cook County
The CDA, Openlands, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County are restoring 181 acres of native landscape at Deer Grove Forest Preserve-East by re-establishing the site's natural water flow, restoring diverse wetlands, woodland and prairie ecosystems, and providing opportunities for public recreation with an inviting trail complex.
The CDA encourages you to visit and enjoy the scenery and recreational amenities like bird watching, fishing, hiking, cross country skiing, horseback riding, biking, educational programs, and picnic shelters that are awaiting your use. Visit the Openlands website (www.openlands.org), the U.S. Forest Service website (www.fs.usda.gov/midewin), and/or the Cook, DuPage, and Will County Park District websites to learn more about these projects.
Photo sources: Openlands & Stantec