Illinois Problems and Solutions

Illinois used to be a quarter wetlands before European trappers arrived and trapped all the beavers. Much of the wetlands in the state were located in the flat northeast corner where glaciers dominated. The beavers kept the ground nice and soggy because they kept rivers connected to their floodplains. Rivers looked completely different; they meandered, looped around, and braided. Once the beavers were gone, the rivers became cut off from their floodplains. Settlers dug drainage ditches and laid drainage tiles (underground pipes) to quickly and efficiently move water off the land into local streams and rivers. Soon much of the Illinois landscape—once peppered with depressions that retained water—was dry for farming and other development.
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Farmers settled in Illinois and decided they would build levees to pump the remaining water off of their fields. The rivers became much more constrained, moved faster, and caused more erosion. The farmers farmed the soil until it became poor; then they had to start adding fertilizers to the soil so that food would grow—fertilizers that contain the nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The fertilizers wash into the rivers in Illinois--the Illinois River, the Kankakee River, and the Sangamon River, to name a few. Those rivers are tributaries of the Mississippi River. And because the rivers move so quickly now, and because there aren’t enough wetlands, there’s no chance for the fertilizers to be filtered out and purified by wetlands. The Mississippi River carries all of those fertilizers into the Gulf of Mexico. And the nutrients in the fertilizers cause large algae blooms to develop, depleting the dissolved oxygen in the area and causing a giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where nothing can live. The dead zone threatens seafood production, recreation, and marine life.
Illinois is also experiencing more frequent precipitation events that are shorter but more intense, and our storm water infrastructure is not designed to handle the amount of rain that is falling during these events. More wetlands would provide increased floodwater storage capacity.
One cutting edge strategy that is being adopted out west to solve water quality problems is low-tech, process-based restoration of riverscapes. Process-based river restoration leads to complex river-wetland corridors. This type of agricultural buffer would filter fertilizer from agricultural runoff before it enters the river, remove nutrients from the water, and increase floodwater storage capacity. Beaver restoration is a type of process-based restoration.

The pieces are in place for Illinois to launch case studies on process-based and beaver-related restoration.

  • A number of states including California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Iowa, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico are piloting or instituting process-based restoration for vaious reasons including stream restoration, wildfire prevention, wetlands restoration, restoring salmon habitat, and raising water tables to feed and water livestock.

  • The Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool (BRAT), developed by Joe Wheaton at Utah State University, models best locations for beaver dams based on a variety of criteria including vegetation, hydrology, soil, and potential human-beaver conflict. It uses GIS data and satellite images.

  • Low-Tech, Process-Based Restoration of Riverscapes Design Manual and Low-Tech, Process-Based Restoration of Riverscapes Pocket Field Guide provide detailed instructions on how to restore rivers using process-based techniques.

  • The Beaver Restoration Guidebook, authors include NOAA and U.S. Fish & Wildlife

  • National Resources Conservation Services-specific resources have been developed for Practice 643 - Restoration of Rare or Declining Natural Communities 

  • The Montana Beaver Working Group plan provides an excellent model of how to reach out to stakeholders about LTPB restoration and beaver-related restoration.

  • Other Midwestern states are already studying how beaver dams would work in our region to increase flood water storage capacity (Wisconsin) and improve water quality (Iowa). 

  • A water quality credit market such as those in other states and regions could monetize Illinois farmers, levee districts, or wastewater treatment facilities to grow or finance wetlands for water quality credit farming. Credit stacking could further monetize wetlands restoration.

More Information About Illinois Watersheds

Impaired Water Quality
 

Inadequate Floodwater Storage Capacity

Outdated Beaver Management Policies

Lack of Water Quality Credit Markets