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Our Kishwaukee River: A Lovely, Vulnerable Gem

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Long recognized as a sanctuary for diverse plant and animal species, the Kishwaukee is one of the highest-quality rivers in Illinois. Learn how the ‘Kish’ is vulnerable to encroaching development and how we can protect it.

A view of the Kishwaukee River. (David C. Olson photo)

Iockford resident Katie Townsend loves to share stories of her adventures kayaking on the Kishwaukee River. Last June, on an early morning excursion, she rounded a bend and saw a muddy river bank bathed in morning light. Suddenly, a slab of it slid into the water and disappeared. A moment later, a sleek black head broke the surface of the river and swam with a vee of ripples glittering behind it; then it dove. An otter!

River otters, once endangered in Illinois, have become an emblem of the high-quality Kishwaukee and the many efforts to preserve and protect its ecological health and recreational value.

Affectionately known to locals as “The Kish,” this river is considered one of the highest-quality streams in Illinois, due to its relatively clean water and its diversity of wildlife. Designated by the state as an “Illinois Resource Rich Area” and a “Biologically Significant Stream,” the Kish watershed, or basin, supports numerous threatened and endangered plant and animal species. Yet its location, sandwiched between the spreading metropolitan regions of Rockford and Chicago, makes it increasingly vulnerable.

Originating near Woodstock in McHenry County, the Kishwaukee watershed has an area of 1,250 square miles. The 63-mile Kishwaukee River corridor meanders gently through the basin of what was once a much larger river system, created as glacial melt water rushed over the terrain some 13,000 years ago.

This watershed originates in open oak woodland and prairie country on low, undulating terrain, reaching steeper topography in the northern parts of Boone and Winnebago counties. The north branch flows from Woodstock to Rockford, where it joins the Rock River. The south branch begins just north of Shabbona, Ill., on the Cropsey Moraine, flowing in a northeasterly direction until reaching Genoa, where it turns to the west-northwest.

Along with a wide variety of animals, about 1,070 species of plants are found in the Kishwaukee River watershed. The river supports 59 species of fish, 26 species of mussels and 14 species of large crustaceans. At least 28 of its plants and 30 of its animals are listed as threatened or endangered in Illinois.

Indigo Bunting. (David C. Olson photo)

A year-long comprehensive mussel study was conducted at 18 sites on the Kishwaukee River by Openlands, a Chicago-based conservation organization, in 2010. Bob Szafoni, Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) biologist, led the Boone and Winnebago segments of the study. He was pleased to find that 16 species of mussels live along the river, including three that are endangered. Mussels are of high importance to conservationists because they’re one of the best indicators of a waterway’s long-term health.

“Mussels live long and don’t travel far, unlike fish, amphibians and reptiles,” Szafoni explains. “If we see a stream that has high-quality mussels, lots of different kinds – 10 or more species – and good numbers of individuals, we can conclude that the stream is still in good shape.”

While the Kish remains relatively healthy, disturbing trends have prompted advocates to implement land use practices to protect the river’s water quality and healthy dynamics.

Sections of the river are contaminated with pollutants that affect its ability to support natural plant and animal populations, as well as recreational activity. According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s (IEPA) 2010 Water Resource Assessment, more than 34 miles of the north branch and nearly 6 miles of the south branch are impaired. About 57 miles are impaired by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and more than 26 miles exceed acceptable levels of mercury, prompting consumption advisories for fish caught in those areas.

State conservationists say that the dam in Belvidere, Ill. significantly interferes with the natural functions of the Kish and causes problems for fish and mussel populations.

“There are more than 350 miles of streams above the dam. Fish living above the dam can die out,” says Karen Rivera, Region I streams manager for the IDNR.

Channel catfish, for example, would migrate and winter in deep pools downstream, but they can’t get past the dam. Several desirable aquatic species are in Beaver Creek, a below-dam tributary, but they can’t populate the majority of the river because the dam blocks access, says Rivera. In 2010, she worked with the Belvidere Dam Fish Passage committee, to study potential solutions. The group concluded that the most cost-effective one would be to notch the dam slightly and build a rock ramp in front of it. This would allow fish to breach the dam, but would have minimal effect upstream.

“The Illinois Office of Water Resources owns the dam and approved the concept, but didn’t want to take on the maintenance responsibilities,” says Rivera. “So the plan is just sitting on the shelf, while Illinois taxpayers fund maintenance of the dam.”

Dams, habitat loss, river and tributary erosion, and water pollution are scientifically addressed in the Strategic Plan for Habitat Conservation and Restoration in Kishwaukee River Watershed. Nathan Hill, a restoration ecologist, is among the primary authors of this document, developed by the Kishwaukee River Ecosystem Partnership in 2006.
“This kind of science-based plan is an essential tool for shaping land-use decisions in the watershed,” says Hill. “Current development and storm water management practices are not providing adequate protection for the river and its tributaries. River monitoring data shows alarming trends in certain segments.”

Rapid urban growth and extensive construction, especially in the metropolitan areas around Woodstock, Belvidere and Rockford, are primary threats to the river’s health. For example, contaminated storm water run-off from parking lots, roads and rooftops, along with municipal sewage discharge, degrade water quality, as do erosion and chemicals related to farming. Nearly 90 percent of the land along the river is farmland in DeKalb County, where the south branch originates.

Erosion from construction sites and farm fields wash fine sediment into the river and its tributaries, smothering the habitat necessary to sustain mussels and aquatic insects, which are the basis of the river system’s food chain. Eco-friendly cropland practices, such as minimum tillage, grassed waterways, streamside filter strips and terracing, can minimize agricultural erosion.

“Right now the Kishwaukee presents a unique opportunity to save an amazing resource,” says Hill. “Because most of it is still in good shape, if we do all we can to protect its watershed, this river has a bright future.”

Beyond best management practices, such as siltation control and vegetated buffer strips, ecologists say that preserving the riparian corridors (native vegetation zones) along the banks of the Kishwaukee is the best way to protect the water and wildlife. Conservation agencies in McHenry, Boone, Winnebago and DeKalb counties have made it a priority to acquire and manage high-quality natural areas along the river. In addition to storing flood waters and filtering run-off, these areas provide scarce prairie, woodland and wetland habitats for many species.

Many banks along the Kish are lined with oaks, sycamores and silver maples. (David C. Olson photo)

In 2010, the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD) opened the Kishwaukee Headwaters Conservation Area, a 153-acre wetland, sedge meadow and remnant savanna area which, along with the surrounding land, is the origin of the main branch of the Kishwaukee River. Here, springs, seeps and fens release subsurface water onto the land that converges at the southern end of the conservation area into a defined stream channel.

“Drop by drop, it seeps from the ancient clays and organic peats, rivulets uniting in a delicate system of hydric capillaries, quickening into a stream,” says Ed Collins, MCCD natural resource manager, describing the site of the river’s emergence. “A form of biological alchemy transforms earth into water, and it’s within this alchemy that the health of the stream must be measured. Healthy water grows in diversity as the river grows in size, but filthy water cannot be washed, no matter how hard we try. Our conservation effort must begin at the source and work its way downstream, just as the water teaches us.”

Within the Kishwaukee Headwaters Conservation Area, more than 132 native plant species thrive, such as great blue lobelia, wild mint, marsh marigolds, asters and prairie star. Sandhill cranes, bobolinks, dickcissels and eastern meadowlarks find refuge in its marshes and meadows.

The Boone County Conservation District (BCCD) is also involved in protecting the Kish, says Dan Kane, executive director. It recently helped to complete the third edition of the Boone and Winnebago County Regional Greenways Plan, which identifies critical areas and offers public officials a tool for reviewing proposed land developments. The BCCD has used grants to purchase land along the Kish and its high-quality tributary streams, including as Piscasaw Creek, designated a “Unique Aquatic Resource.”

The Winnebago County Forest Preserve District (WCFPD) has prioritized acquisition along the Kishwaukee River as well, and is working toward creating a continuous corridor of high-quality habitat to protect the river and its entire ecosystem. Tom Hartley, WCFPD director of land acquisition, says the agency has focused on the Kish because it’s in the part of the county where the most growth and development is occurring.

“There’s an urgency to protect and restore riverfront land to minimize the impacts of development,” says Hartley. “A continuous corridor protects the integrity of the stream, provides connected wildlife habitat and enables land and water recreation trails.” When the district adds a new parcel to the Kishwaukee corridor, as it did in 2010 when it acquired the County Line Forest Preserve, the parcel is restored with native trees and grasses to enhance habitat, provide nutrients, reduce flooding and filter debris and pollutants.

Likewise, DeKalb County Forest Preserve District (DCFPD) is expanding its preserves along the south branch of the Kish to create a protected corridor, reports Terry Hannan, superintendent. In 2008-2009, 94-acre Genoa Prairie was added to the east side of Russell Woods Forest Preserve, west of Genoa on Route 72; in 2010-2011, another 60 acres of prairie and wetland habitat will be restored along the river.

“We’re very committed to acquisitions that help protect land and water resources,” says Hannan. “When we’re offered a piece of property on the river, it goes right to the top of our priority list.” Recent reports of bald eagles nesting in Russell Woods suggest that efforts to enhance fish and wildlife habitats are succeeding.

Because much of the Kishwaukee corridor remains a natural setting, it’s a very popular location for paddling, floating and fishing. Tina Dawson Scott, of McHenry County, explores portions of the river in Boone and Winnebago counties by canoe and kayak. “The Kish is a fairly wide, clear, easy-flowing river that welcomes paddlers of all levels,” she says, adding that she enjoys viewing wildlife and unspoiled scenery as she glides quietly along.

In spring, riverbanks of the Kish are blanketed with bluebells, lady’s slippers, trillium and trout lilies; in summertime, with deep shade provided by oaks, sycamores and silver maples; and in fall, with one of the most colorful foliage displays in the region.

“Because of the high-quality habitat in the Kishwaukee corridor, I see birds and wildlife every time I paddle,” says Dawson Scott. Great blue herons, least bitterns, sandhill cranes, barred owls, wood ducks and the state-endangered osprey are not uncommon sights. Twelve amphibian and 21 reptile species are found here, which means visitors are likely to see frogs, toads, and a variety of turtles.

One of Scott’s favorite river trips is from Belvidere Park in Belvidere to Baumann Park in Cherry Valley, with a picnic stop at the Distillery Conservation Area near Belvidere. In Winnebago County, she often puts in at Kishwaukee River Forest Preserve, accessible from Blackhawk and Mulford roads in Rockford, and takes out at Atwood Park. A longer, shallower and less-populated Winnebago County paddle begins on the south branches, at the canoe launch off Blomberg Road at Oak Ridge Forest Preserve in Cherry Valley, and converges with the north branch, finishing at the Kishwaukee River preserve.

Great Blue Heron (David C. Olson photo)

Kerry Schaible spends time on the Kishwaukee River nearly every weekend throughout the spring, summer and fall. He moved to Cherry Valley in 1980 to be closer to the river, which plays a major role in his family’s quality of life.

The Schaibles’ river activities include tubing, canoeing, and fishing. He catches smallmouth bass, northern, and the occasional walleye or crappie.

“The ability to just walk down to the river and cast for good-sized fish is a treat,” says Schaible. “The fact that the forest preserve district has protected the Kishwaukee is pretty wonderful. I’m so glad it’s not all developed – I love the river. I think it’s beautiful and I hope it stays that way.”

Kayaker Townsend expresses similar feelings. An environmental educator, she has researched the history of the river’s name. Some sources attribute it to the American Indian word for “sycamore tree,” while others suggest it means “clear waters.”

“Any way you translate it, the Kishwaukee River endures as a place of beauty, vitality and inspiration,” she says.
All who spend time there are likely to agree. ❚

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