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Riparian Ecosystem Creation and Restoration:
A Literature Summary

Case Studies

Des Plaines River Wetlands Demonstration Project


In 1980, near Chicago, Illinois, a group of scientists, engineers, public officials, and citizens banded together to develop a convincing case for wetland restoration by forming Wetlands Research, Inc., with Dr. Donald Hey as director. Their goal was to develop and test design principles, construction methods, and management programs needed to re-create and maintain wetlands (Hey 1988). They also intended to show how reconstructed wetlands function. The ultimate goal was to redirect and reform current environmental policies and thereby change investment and management programs. The strategy for achieving these goals and objectives was to be embodied in a wetlands demonstration project.

The group began the project with a literature search of computerized environmental data bases to obtain pertinent information and develop a list of researchers to use as contacts (Hey et al. 1982). This information-gathering process was followed by field trips to representative wetlands to examine existing functions of wetlands.

Criteria for selecting a project site were established. These criteria included that the site was disturbed (thus would most benefit from restoration), was in public ownership, and had a low level of recreational use (for less impact during construction). A site incorporating 2.8 miles of the Des Plaines River and 450 acres of riparian land, 35 miles north of Chicago in Lake County, Illinois, fit the criteria and became Wetlands Research, Inc.'s Des Plaines River Wetlands Demonstration Project.

The Des Plaines River is polluted with both nonpoint source contaminants from a variety of land uses, including agriculture, and point source contaminants from small wastewater treatment plants. Vegetation was heavily grazed, and the site contained three abandoned gravel pits. The site was owned by the Lake County Forest Preserve District and received relatively minor recreational use by fishermen.

A baseline inventory of the site was used as the basis for the conceptual plan. The inventory included collecting data on landforms, soils, hydrology, water quality, vegetation, wildlife, and public access and use.

The conceptual plan included widening the floodway to increase river surface area and reduce depth, forming a braided channel, creating a shelf along the shore of a gravel pit lake to promote emergent plant growth, removing topsoil and stockpiling for later placement after landforming, reintroducing a variety of native wetland vegetation, and monitoring the water quality, natural habitats, flooding, and public use of the site. To aid in modifying the seasonal distribution of stream flow, water will be redistributed to river terraces by pumping, banks will be lowered, and old levees will be removed. Water quality will be enhanced by the increased evapotranspiration, infiltration, and recharge. Detention time will increase, providing greater opportunities for sediment settling and nutrient uptake.

Five distinct habitats are included in the plan: woodland, prairie, moist river terrace, marsh, and aquatic. Selection of species for plantings included applying an autecological rating based on the plant's ability to volunteer, rarity in the region, and adaptiveness to site conditions. Providing a high diversity of plant species also was a priority. Management of the completed project was expected to be fairly low. Pumping of water from the river up to the irrigated river terraces would not be a continuous or regular event; instead, it would depend on moisture needs and flood control. Prescribed burning will be used as a tool against invasion of detrimental weeds. Woody vegetation would have to be cleared if it encroached on the river's main channel. Recreation management is not expected to be intense because the area will be used as a self-guided interpretive trail system and a canoe trail.

The benefits of the project are difficult to quantify, but include improved wildlife habitat, water quality enhancement, flood control, and recreation. Hey et al. (1982) discussed some of these benefits, particularly reduced cost of water quality enhancement compared to conventional wastewater treatment systems. One of the central issues of the project is to demonstrate that wetland restoration will be a cheaper and more effective way of solving water quality and flooding problems than the various structural solutions of the past (Holtz 1986).

In 1987, about one-third of the restoration work was completed. Once completed, research on the area will continue for 5 years, and then the area will be managed by the Lake County Forest Preserve District (Holtz 1986). Four tangible products will be produced by this project: (1) a design manual describing the physical and biological parameters for constructing wetlands; (2) a management-operations manual describing long-term monitoring needs and operational strategies to maintain critical wetlands functions; (3) a documentary film showing the site as it was before, during, and after restoration, to illustrate changes in plant and wildlife communities and document improvement in water quality and water attenuation; and (4) a living demonstration, the restored site, maintained by the Lake County Forest Preserve District (Hey 1988).

Presently, detailed publications concerning baseline survey results; design, construction specifications, and site management; and research plans for the Des Plaines River Wetlands Demonstration Project are available through Wetlands Research, Inc. Research plans include examinations of the hydrology, water quality, geology, vegetation, soils, microorganisms, aquatic macrophytes, terrestrial insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, mammals, and public use of the area (Smith and Sather 1985).

The solution to water resource problems does not use restoration technology as an aesthetic touch; it needs it to function (Holtz 1986). If successful, the Des Plaines River Wetlands Demonstration Project may help to establish the use of wetland restoration as a viable, economical, and preferred method for stream improvement along similarly degraded streams in the U.S.


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