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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories



Chain O'Lakes and Fox River Selected for Streambank Protection Project

The Chain O'Lakes and Fox River is an Illinois river system with an on-stream lake in western Lake County and eastern McHenry County that provides recreational opportunities for more than a million visitors each year. This beneficial use is, however, potentially threatened by nonpoint sources in the watershed. The lake and river are affected by runoff, shoreline and bank erosion, and land disturbances (development). In addition, heavy boat traffic on the lake often stirs up the bottom sediments, resuspending them in the waterway.

To counter these problems, watershed partners began a bank protection demonstration project. That is, using 319 funding, they implemented various bank protection methods, thereby modeling a wide variety of management tools. Among the many tools available, the project emphasized natural or vegetative solutions, nonstructural management solutions, and other methods to hold the soil.

Biotechnical methods

To demonstrate biotechnical protection methods, the project put advanced erosion control materials and riparian vegetation at the base of the eroding shoreline, where scour from wave action usually occurs. Special fabrics, natural fiber products, wave breaks, or several of these in combination protect root systems and trap sand, silt, and gravel along the water's edge. The result is an aesthetically pleasing natural landscape that routine maintenance will protect and improve. Leaving a buffer strip of plants at least 10 feet long and mowed no lower than 6 inches is simple, inexpensive, and protective.

The benefits of biotechnical methods are many; they are cost-effective, improve boating conditions (wave energy from boats and wind is absorbed, not reflected), offer attractive and improved shoreline habitat, and yield better water quality. While native plants are recommended, other plants can be used. Species selected for revegetation projects should be adaptable to a moist shoreline setting and local soil conditions. Common choices include red osier dogwood, prairie cord grass, blue flag iris, and arrowhead. Biotechnical methods prevent shoreline erosion, which in turn prevents sediments from entering the water. Their use in this project led to the following overall improvements:

  • erosion prevention control,
  • shoreline stabilization, and
  • habitat restoration.

Created wetlands

The Chain O'Lakes and Fox River project also made the first inland use of a "geotube" to create new wetlands along the Fox River. This fabric tube 30 feet in circumference and 140 feet long is a piece of woven polyester that can be filled with dredged sediment. Geotubes should last at least 15 years under normal weather conditions, and they also act as a buffer against waves.

"It has worked amazingly well," said Karen Kabbes, the former executive director of the Fox Waterway Agency. The agency hopes to use a series of geotubes, linked together in a giant circle, for long-term protection. Wetland plants are added once the interior is filled with sediment.

Nonstructural methods

Nonstructural management techniques include the creation of no-wake zones and no- motor areas. The redirection of traffic routes to deeper locations, strict dredging rules, monitoring and educational efforts (with some especially directed to boaters) are other proposed management methods.

CONTACT: Laura Rinbenberger
Chain O'Lakes Fox River Waterway Management Agency
(708) 587-8540

Creating Useful Beauty -
The Skokie River Restoration Project

A brochure for the Chicago Botanic Garden invites people to "experience the beauty that extends beyond floral color." This beauty now extends to the banks of the Skokie River which flows through this 300-acre living museum. The Chicago Botanic Garden has recently completed a restoration project on the Skokie River with section 319 funding. The project was a partnership: the Chicago Botanic Garden, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, and Applied Ecological Services shared responsibilities and resources to save the river. In all, approximately 100,000 plants of various native species were planted along the river's edge.

A troubled past

The Skokie River, a 23-mile-long tributary of the North Branch of the Chicago River, flows along Lake Michigan in Lake and Cook counties in northeastern Illinois. The river is much altered from its presettlement conditions. Original land maps from the area indicate that it was once a wet prairie, about one-quarter-mile wide. Today, it is a channel not more than 20 to 40 feet wide.

The river was channelized in 1957, and over the last 30 years, its banks have severely eroded. The Skokie also encounters pollution as it flows along a major expressway: siltation, organic enrichment, nutrients, urban runoff, hydrologic modifications, and habitat alterations are serious problems.

Erosion has exposed many underground pipes, and the river is often green with mats of algae. Sedimentation downstream has created wide, shallow channels with poor habitat and degraded buffer zones that also provide poor pollution filtering capabilities.

Project toolbox

The Skokie River Restoration Project began during the summer of 1994 in response to these degraded conditions. The project's goals are to stabilize eroding streambanks, improve water quality, and enhance the streamside buffer zones. It also serves as an educational tool. Workshops sponsored during the project provide information about effective and economical restoration and management techniques. Landscape professionals, urban and environmental planners, conservation groups, and engineers are using information provided by the project.

The project has used seven basic tools to help restore the river:

  • Streambank planting. Native prairie grasses that have deep, dense roots were planted to protect the river against erosion.
  • Brush layering. Horizontal layers of willow and dogwood branches were placed along the bank to hold the soil in place and reduce the energy of the water against the bank.
  • Willow posts. Dormant willow posts, which root profusely, were pounded into the ground as a bank stabilization technique.
  • Coir fiber rolls. Biodegradable coconut fiber rolls planted with native wetland plants and placed along banks or in-stream further stabilize and enhance aquatic habitats.
  • Riffle enhancement. Placing large rocks and boulders in existing riffles improved water aeration and habitat.
  • No-till drill seeding. Approximately 11 acres of streamside buffer were planted with native prairie plants.
  • Wetland creation. A five-acre wetland was created on the river to treat runoff. Approximately 48 species of native wetland plants will grow in this system.

Information and education are integral components of the Skokie River Restoration Project. The partnership developed a fact sheet that explains the multifaceted project and streambank stabilization techniques and a 30-minute video that documents the project's progress and describes its techniques, methods, and materials. Students have even used the site to learn water monitoring methods.

The Skokie River Restoration Project will remain an invaluable model of inexpensive, vegetative solutions to impaired aquatic habitat and water quality. Using native vegetation to stabilize and buffer the riverbanks requires little maintenance and improves pollutant filtering and aquatic habitat.

CONTACTS: Cynthia Baker
Chicago Botanical Garden
(847) 835-8300

Scott Ristau
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency
(217) 782-3362

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