Restoring the Region’s Wetlands

Photo credit: Gary Sullivan

Hegewisch Marsh on Chicago’s southeast side and many other wetland areas in the region no longer function the way they once did -  but they have great potential to be restored. The Wetlands Initiative (TWI), a Chicago-based nonprofit founded in 1994 that is dedicated to restoring the Midwest’s wetland resources, is conducting an assessment of this site and 18 other sites surrounding and near Lake Calumet. The organization’s goal at these sites is to determine if, how and to what extent water quality, biodiversity and wildlife habitat quality can be improved.

In recent years, TWI has worked extensively on a range of projects in Illinois. Prominent efforts have included restoration of the 3,000-acre Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, north of Peoria, and more than 1,700 acres of prairie and wetlands at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County.

The Lake Calumet project targets an area of great need. For many years, the habitats at these sites have changed to the point where there is considerably more open water but less of the vegetation that plays a vital role in supporting different types of wildlife. In many cases, the hydrology of an area (manmade or natural) no longer supports marsh habitat; invasive plant (and sometimes fish) species have moved in and devastated native plants, and industry has had a major effect on wetlands in the region. Industrial development over the past 100 years or so has filled thousands of acres of these wetlands and created conditions that allowed noxious invasive species to thrive. (These invasive species often thrive in areas where natural processes have been disrupted.) One example in the region that will be studied by the project is Big Marsh, which was once part of Lake Calumet. The site was once a dumping ground for slag, stony matter separated from metals during the smelting or refining of ore. A current Chicago Park District project to transform Big Marsh would create a bike park and encourage various outdoor activities at the site.

“The Calumet region in Illinois and Indiana was once one of the most biologically diverse wetland areas in the country,” says Gary Sullivan, senior restoration ecologist for TWI. “But many of these wetlands are now gone, while those that remain no longer function the way they once did. However, we believe, along with many others in Chicago’s conservation community, that many of the Calumet wetlands can still be brought back and restored.”

The assessment is primarily focusing on hemi-marshes at these sites – a type of wetland that features a complex mosaic of plants growing below and peeking above the water line, as well as floating plants. Hemi-marshes provide critical habitats for wetlands-dependent aquatic birds, but they have been disappearing from the region.

At the end of the process, the project will produce a report on the state of wetlands at these sites and how they could be improved. The report will include a short list of sites that have the most potential to be restored by altering the hydrology of an area, managing water levels and, in general, making changes that would allow habitats to function better.

Funding for this project is provided by a grant for the Millennium Reserve Conservation Compact initiative from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Coastal Management Program through a federal grant from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The Forest Preserves of Cook County is recipient of the funds, which are distributed to TWI and Audubon Chicago Region. The Chicago Park District, The Field Museum, The Nature Conservancy and Illinois’ Coastal Management Program are contributing expertise.

One of the biggest ecological benefits of restoring these areas, Sullivan says, is bringing back the habitat conditions that once supported so much of the Calumet’s wildlife, including many species long in decline or extirpated from the region.

Indian Ridge Marsh

At Indian Ridge Marsh along the Calumet River on Chicago’s southeast side, TWI is partnering with Audubon Chicago Region to restore sections of the marsh. Indian Ridge Marsh is part of the ongoing assessment of sites, but the site has also received separate funds to conduct restoration work there. Audubon Chicago is focusing on how restoration efforts at the 165-acre marsh can create favorable conditions for more than a dozen species of birds, including the King rail, Yellow-headed blackbird, Snowy egret and Black-crowned night herons. 

Audubon is partnering with the Wetlands Initiative on the project, which is funded by the Chi-Cal Rivers Fund. (Indian Ridge Marsh is managed by the Chicago Park District.)

“If the habitat is good, the birds will return, with a little bit of luck,” says Nat Miller, director of  conservation for Audubon Chicago Region. One example, he adds, is the “Black-crowned night heron – a really beautiful bird that breeds in these tremendous colonies. It’s an impressive, raucous, loud bird.” In recent years, the birds left the southeast side and are now nesting near the nature boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo; restoration, Miller and others say, could bring the species back to Indian Ridge Marsh.

In the end, current efforts by TWI and its partners aim to restore hemi-marsh to these habitats. In the process, they are creating more opportunities for conservation, recreation and economic development in areas where restored wetlands are a natural asset. Healthy wetlands can remove pollutants, store floodwaters and yield a range of other benefits that contribute to a healthy economy.

“The Wetlands Initiative provides experience in how we can manage and make decisions about water-related habitats,” says Miller. “Because of the amount of open space, we can create areas that benefit wildlife and people. The potential is off the charts.”


April 2016