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Three Reasons to Be Proud of Our Illinois Waterways

Illinois Clean WaterwaysWe get so much doom and gloom news about the environment that it is easy to think that nothing good is being done out there.

But those of us out in the field know that there are plenty of spectacular and inspiring things being done every day that the general public might not be aware of happening right around them!

So for this post I wanted to share some stories of the people making a positive impact on our Illinois waterways that we can all take pride in!

Margaret Frisbie

Executive Director, Friends of the Chicago River

When Friends of the Chicago River was founded 35 years ago it was hard to imagine that one day the Chicago River would ever be alive with activity above and below the surface!

Yet, I am proud to report that our once polluted and fenced off river that only supported 7 pollution tolerant fish species is now home to over 70 species of fish and all kinds of other wildlife including beavers, muskrats, mink, snapping turtles, great blue heron and occasionally river otters.

There is an increase in human activity as well. The numbers of water taxis, miles of river trail, and variety of restaurants are increasing every year. With the recent $100 million investment in the Chicago Riverwalk it is anticipated that by 2017 the river will become one of Chicago’s top tourist destinations.

River-edge development is continually opening up the riverbank to the public. Just in Chicago alone more than 10 river-edge parks have been developed or improved that provide the public with opportunity to walk, hike, bike, paddle and enjoy nature.

There have also been literally thousands of new residences constructed along the river. Downtown showpiece projects like 300 N. LaSalle and River Point are bringing Chicago’s top corporations to the river’s edge and providing more space to enjoy the river.

Investing in the river is paying us back too. A study released by Friends of the Chicago River and Openlands last year revealed that for every $1 we spend on water quality improvement and public access we get $1.70 in return.

Friends of the Chicago River’s vision is that the Chicago River will become one of the world’s greatest metropolitan rivers and we are now certainly well on our way!

Mike Adam

Senior Biologist, Lake County Health Department


In recent years there has been a strong movement in Illinois and across the United States to regulate phosphorus to protect our water resources. Excess phosphorus has lead to significant water quality problems including harmful algal blooms, hypoxia (i.e., low oxygen) and declines in fish and wildlife habitat.

It is estimated that 1 pound of phosphorus can produce 350-700 lbs of algae.

In 2007, Illinois restricted the amount of phosphorus contained in “cleaning agents” which includes laundry and dishwashing detergent. A second bill was signed into law in 2010 prohibiting lawn care services from applying phosphorus fertilizer on residential lawns unless the lawn is new or has a proven phosphorus deficiency. The fertilizer also cannot be applied to lawns that are frozen or already saturated. The law prevents fertilizer from being applied to impervious surfaces and restricts the area and application method in which any fertilizer may be applied within 15ft of a water body.

Several states including Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan and some municipalities and lake associations in northern Illinois have passed legislation restricting phosphorus fertilizer applications to lawns by both commercial and non-commercial applicators (homeowners). It is believed that Illinois soils naturally contain adequate phosphorus levels in the soil to maintain a healthy lawn.

In 2009 the journal of Lakes and Reservoir Management published an article documenting a 28% reduction in phosphorus concentrations in the Huron River, following the implementation of municipal ordinances reducing non-point sources of phosphorus including limiting the application of lawn fertilizers containing phosphorus in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Although Illinois does not have a total ban on phosphorus, the fertilizer industry has responded and most formulations of lawn fertilizer now available in stores have no phosphorus (indicated by the middle number, for example: 20-0-10).

Matt Miller

Senior Science Writer, The Nature Conservancy

     The Nature Conservancy

Once they were the river’s top predator: a fish that could reach ten feet or more, with thick armored plates as scales and imposing jagged teeth.

You would see their long, tooth snouts poking out from the river’s surface, gulping air—their adaptation for thriving in warm, deoxygenated water.

Alligator gar.

They thrived in a large swath of mid-western and southern waters, but by the early 1900s, they were already starting to disappear, a trend that continues to this day.

They were declared extinct in Illinois in 1994.
But a new restoration and research effort aims to bring back these incredible fish, and help conservationists at other rivers and waters better protect them.

The Gar Returns

Formerly central Illinois farmland, Spunky Bottoms is now 2000 acres of restored wetlands and uplands. It consisted of perfect gar habitat: backwaters and sluggish pools with lots of vegetation. Spunky Bottoms was stocked with 22-inch-long alligator gar from hatcheries two years ago. Last year, Nathan Grider, a master’s student in biology at the University of Illinois-Springfield, and his team began capturing them (primarily by netting), measuring them and recording data.

They are studying how fast gar will grow when restocked into an area. They are also analyzing their diet, and in particular, if the gar will eat (and control) the non-native carp that swim Spunky Bottoms and so many other waters.

Could restocked gar thrive in a restored wetland?

Oh yeah. In fact, fish gained as much as 14 pounds in just 17 months. “It was impressive growth,” says Grider. “We knew the exact age of individual fish, because they came from hatcheries. The fish at Spunky Bottoms grew faster than gar in any reintroduced population.”

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