Rock River runs through several urban areas, including Rockford, pictured here. While point source industrial pollution is less of a concern than it was 30 years ago before the 1972 Clean Water Act, agricultural run-off continues to be of major concern to environmentalists who study the Rock’s water quality. (Brad Nordlof photo)

The Rock River: From Ruin to Recovery

Human impact has forever changed the quality of our great river, and it will never regain its sparkling clarity, or the many native species of plants and animals now extinct. Even so, today’s Rock River is far healthier and cleaner than it was before the Clean Water Act of 1972 became the law of the land.

Rock River runs through several urban areas, including Rockford, pictured here. While point source industrial pollution is less of a concern than it was 30 years ago before the 1972 Clean Water Act, agricultural run-off continues to be of major concern to environmentalists who study the Rock’s water quality. (Brad Nordlof photo)

The Rock River’s recent history is much like that of other major Midwestern rivers: It begins with 19th century loggers and 20th century manufacturers using the river as a sewer. Water quality changes from pristine to putrid, killing much plant and animal life. In the 1970s comes a wave of regret. People begin working in earnest to revive the nation’s gasping rivers. Communities mobilize; federal legislation is passed, including the 1972 Clean Water Act; states adopt water quality standards.
The Rock River has a unique story, as well. It has its own riverbed composition, water sources, wildlife mix, adjoining wetlands matrix and pattern of human impact. No two rivers are exactly alike.
The Rock River rises near West Bend, Wis., and flows south 130 miles into Illinois, then takes a southwest course for 155 miles, past Rockford, Oregon, Dixon, Sterling and Rock Island, before emptying into the Mississippi River. It covers more than 12,400 acres, and biologists who manage the ecology of the Rock River divide it into two segments: The Upper Rock River runs from south central Wisconsin through Ogle County, Ill.; the Lower Rock River flows through parts of Bureau, Carroll, Henry, Lee, Rock Island and Whiteside counties.
First morning light on the Rock River. (David Olson photo)

The Nature of the Damage

The Rock River that European settlers encountered was surrounded by fertile soils and sprawling forests. Its water ran clear and sparkling, supporting thousands of species of insects, fish, turtles, frogs, mussels, birds and mammals. Much has changed over the past 150 years. More than 60 percent of the Rock River basin’s wetlands have been destroyed; nearly all of the oak savannas and prairies have been cut down and plowed to make way for agriculture.
From its headwaters in Wisconsin, the Rock River runs through major urban areas of Madison, Janesville, Beloit, Rockford and the Quad Cities. The majority of land in the Rock River basin today is rural.
“Crop fields, pastures, municipal and industrial wastewater discharges, construction sites and urban areas have all contributed to the degradation of the Rock’s water quality,” says Jim Congdon, Upper Rock Watershed Supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). The primary pollutants of concern – nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment – enter the river from many sources. Excess phosphorus leads to algae blooms that turn the water green, scummy, odorous and undesirable for recreation. Blue-green algae produce toxins that can cause rashes, illness and even death. When these plants die, the process of decomposition uses much of the available oxygen. This results in a severely depleted supply of oxygen in the water, endangering fish and other aquatic life, Congdon explains. An overabundance of sediment destroys habitat, blocks sunlight and warms the water.
Because of its high nitrogen pollution level, the Rock River, a major tributary of the Mississippi River, is one of the top 10 contributors to the growing hypoxia, or dead zone, in the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, improving water quality in the Rock River is essential to improving water quality in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

How Restoration Pays Off

The snapshot of the Rick River’s current condition isn’t all bad news.
“Without a doubt, the health of the Rock River has improved since the Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972,” says Congdon. He explains that “point-source pollution, from industrial and municipal discharge, is not as much of a problem as it was 50 years ago, but nonpoint-source pollution continues to be a problem.” In fact, the entire main stem of the Rock River is designated as “impaired.” The federal CWA requires states to adopt water quality standards to protect waters from pollution. The standards rely on criteria for a wide range of pollutants such as phosphorus, sediment, bacteria, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), and mercury. A river is impaired if it doesn’t support full use by humans, wildlife, fish and other aquatic life, and if it exceeds one or more of the pollutant criteria.
Restoration efforts are paying off. “There are a lot of things that are being done that are reducing soil loss and phosphorous run-off into our waters,” Congdon says of Rock River water quality in Wisconsin. Under his leadership, the WDNR has developed a plan to address pollution problems in the Upper Rock River basin. After a public input process, the Rock River Basin Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Plan will be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Then, regulatory agencies will begin working with communities and grass-roots organizations within the Rock River Basin to implement strategies for accomplishing phosphorous reduction and goals for other pollutant.
Congdon is hopeful that best management practices called for in the Rock River TMDL plan will accelerate the positive trend. Among them: better managing turf nutrients and fertilizers; maintaining forest and grass riparian buffers; fencing stream banks to block livestock access; and using cover crops and continuous no-till farming practices.
Biology instructor Larry McPheron has been monitoring the Rock River for 19 years. Working with students in the water lab of Burpee Museum of Natural History, Rockford, he often tests water quality indicators, such as chemical pollutants and dissolved oxygen, using samples from northern Illinois locations along the river. “We have peaks in nitrates and phosphates in the spring, due to agricultural run-off, and in Winnebago County, the Rock River suffers from urban run-off and municipal discharge from the streets, rooftops and roads of the Rockford metropolitan area,” he says.
Dams, though an efficient source of renewable energy, result in harmful physical and biological changes in a river. “Dams have raised water temperature, slowed the current, isolated fish and mussel populations, and generally disrupted wildlife that had adapted to the natural cycles of the river,” says Rick Rudey, a director of the Upper Rock River Ecosystem Partnership (URREP). There are 23 dams on the Rock.
Wetlands are very important to a river’s health, and 60 percent of the Rock River’s have been destroyed. Historically, wetlands attached to the Rock River have provided natural flood control, habitat for fish and waterfowl, and natural water purification. Wetlands help to maintain stream and river flows during dry periods, thereby replenishing water supplies and maintaining aquatic habitat. Today, fewer than 30 percent of the wetlands in the original Rock River’s ecosystem survive. Stream channelization, building of drainage ditches and draining of wetlands have contributed to flooding problems along the Rock.
“There’s a false perception that Rock River flooding events have become more frequent and severe in recent years,” says Rudey, who has monitored numerous Rock River gauging stations. “Looking at the past 95 years, there hasn’t been much change. There aren’t significantly more high-water events, or more flow.”
Rather, more of the Rock’s floodplain has been developed, feeding that perception. “Places like Shorewood Park in Loves Park, Ill., seem to get clobbered a couple of times a year,” Rudey notes. “But that marsh is an area that’s necessary for a river to do its thing.”
The natural cycle for a river in a major storm event is to crest, top its banks, and then spread out into the flood plain, where it dissipates volume and velocity. Both McPheron and Rudey suggest that the long-term solution to flooding problems – and to protecting the Rock’s ecology – lies in allowing the river to follow its natural dynamics as much as possible.
Loss of floodplain wetlands has devastated wildlife. Species such as blue-spotted salamanders, crayfish, yellow-headed blackbirds and Blanding’s turtle, which once bred in the shallow waters and vegetation of the Rock River’s floodplains, are now scarce. Many native fish species need the quiet shallow ponds and marshes that once fringed the Rock, for spawning, feeding and refuge.
Wildlife habitat in the Rock River basin continues to be lost, and fragmentation of habitat is accelerating. Most of the original habitat was displaced by agriculture. Today, urban sprawl is causing subdivisions, strip malls and parking lots to replace farms in the Upper Rock landscape.

Ongoing Recovery

When fishing as a youngster, McPheron often encountered slimy water and abscessed fish. He’s witnessed significant improvement in the Rock River in recent decades, and largely attributes it to a reduction of industrial polluters. “It’s a lot better than in 1992, when I started monitoring,” he says. “Then, it was poor to fair. Now, it’s fair to good in this area. The EPA laws enforced in recent decades have really helped.”
This trend is reflected in the river’s biological health. “I think the Rock is in pretty good shape,” says Karen Rivera, Region I Streams Manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), who explains the river’s biological rating. “When we sample a stream, we give it an IBI rating [Index of Biotic Integrity], based on the number of species we find. Our last sampling was in 2008, and much of the Rock scored in the A or B range.”
Most of the Rock River is rated B, or fair to good. A few sections are A, meaning good to excellent. Just one section is rated C. “If anything, the Rock has improved in the past 30 years,” Rivera notes. “We’re finding more gravel chubs [an endangered species], which may be a good indication that things are getting better.”
Richie Wolf, Superintendent of Education and Recreation at Byron Forest Preserve District, agrees that the river is on an upswing. “I think we’ve come a long way since the 1970s,” he says.
Still, he worries about the ongoing problem of farm soil run-off containing phosphorous. “Sediment makes the water brownish,” he explains. “Prior to extensive agriculture, the water was much clearer.”
As a conservationist and environmental educator, Wolf thinks it’s important for people to recognize that many of the Rock’s native species have become extinct and can’t be restored. The riverbed was once gravel and rock, but now it’s covered with a thick layer of silt that limits what plants and animals can grow and reproduce there.
“Fish and wildlife are coming back, but some are nonnative species,” Wolf points out. “It’s nothing like the original diversity. We have only the organisms that can tolerate current conditions.”
The Rock River in Illinois supports more than 53 fish species, according to Elizabeth Mullen, biologist and author of The Fishes of Winnebago County. These include gravel chub and lake sturgeon, near the Quad Cities, both endangered species, along with several species on the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan list of Species in Greatest Need of Conservation, such as northern pike, muskie, smallmouth bass, walleye and sauger.
Mussels were once abundant in the Rock River, their shells sold to the button industry before plastics became widespread after World War II. Not surprisingly, their numbers of species have declined drastically, beginning in the late 19th century and continuing through the present. About 50 percent of the freshwater mussel species in the Rock River disappeared between 1910 and 1965, probably due to damming, pollution and siltation, which destroyed or decreased populations requiring swifter, cooler, clearer waters. Whereas 80 species once thrived in Illinois, 27 are found today, and five of them are rare.
The IDNR has high hopes that the recovering Rock River will provide much-needed habitat for endangered mussels, such as the washboard and Higgins’-eye. It has implemented an intensive reintroduction of the Higgins’-eye mussel, says Rivera. Raised in a lab, baby Higgin-eyes have been stocked in the river above the Quad Cities. Because these mussels are being wiped out in the Mississippi River by invasive zebra mussels, the Rock River effort is critical to the species’ survival.
In many areas along its route to the Mississippi, the Rock River and its tributaries contain the last remaining undeveloped corridors that provide wildlife with sheltered paths between habitats, for migration, food sources and breeding areas. Although dozens of species have vanished, an impressive array of wildlife still inhabits the Rock River at its margins, in restored marshes and wetlands. Commonly sighted are frogs, turtles, ducks, wading birds, muskrats, foxes and beavers. Visitors may see kingfishers and bald eagles fishing, and hear some of the 100-plus species of songbirds who use the Rock River as a migratory flyway. Because of intense agricultural land use in Illinois and Wisconsin, and corresponding lost natural habitat, the Rock River’s riparian corridor is a critical oasis for resting and feeding migratory birds.
At the Rock River basin’s north end lies the state- and federally-owned, 30,000-acre Horicon Marsh. Because of its unique geological history and great wildlife diversity – 266 species of birds, including many rare or endangered – it has been designated a “Wetland of International Importance” by the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and a “Globally Important Bird Area” by the American Bird Conservancy. The Horicon Marsh International Education Center welcomes visitors for bird watching, wildlife viewing, hiking, naturalist programs and special events.

For Paddlers

In the 1920s, one visitor dubbed Rock River country the “Hudson of the West,” because of its natural beauty. Today, residents and visitors find a recreational jewel whose cleanliness is far greater than it was a half-century ago.
As with all rivers, the Rock is variable in speed and depth. Quiet areas in the Beloit region make for exceptional kayak and canoe experiences. The remote section of the river between Janesville and Beloit is shallow and not used much by motorboats, making it a great place to explore the quiet beauty of the waterway. From the John Rose Canoe and Kayak launch in Beloit, paddlers can head downriver to Illinois, through an area that seldom sees motor boats.
Turtle Creek and Pecatonica River join the Rock in this section between Beloit and Rockton. Both have seen a resurgence of nesting bald eagles and other water birds, indicating a healthier river environment. “There are many options for lengths of trips in the Beloit area, from one to six hours, with options to take out at Macktown Forest Preserve, Hononegah Forest Preserve and Atwood Forest Preserve, among other choices,” says Therese Oldenburg, Beloit resident and kayaker.
The 8-mile section of river from Happy Hollow County Park, north of Beloit, down to Beloit’s Riverside Park, is broader and used more by motorboats. But if paddlers don’t mind sharing the water, it’s an enjoyable stretch, with views of beautiful homes. Boaters can paddle right up to The Rock Bar and Grill for food and drink.
Richie Wolf, who often takes his young daughters out on the river, describes the conditions as slow moving and fairly shallow, especially near Byron. “Not much danger canoeing on the Rock,” he says. “Just don’t go out when there are winds over 20 mph.” Wolf likes to put in at the wayside area on Route 2 and float downstream to the Byron Forest Preserve parking lot on River Road, about 7 miles, or a two-hour trip.
For a longer adventure, the Wolf family puts in at the bridge on South Main Street in Rockford, near the Ace of Diamonds, and takes less than 3 hours to go downstream to Byron Forest Preserve. “It’s a great stretch for canoeing,” Wolf says. “There’s not a lot of motorboat traffic up that way. It’s a worry-free, hassle-free trip, and there are two eagles’ nests between Rockford and Byron.” The eagles have made a comeback in the past 15 years, because the river is supporting more aquatic life for them to feed on. Wolf also sees beavers, whitetail deer and snapping turtles. “I lifted up a baby snapping turtle on my paddle one day,” he reports.
Other wildlife commonly seen during Rock River expeditions in Winnebago and Ogle counties includes migrating white pelicans, great blue herons and the state-endangered osprey.
A longer and especially scenic weekend canoe trip is from Black Hawk Park, on the south side of Rockford, to Dixon. Plan to reach Byron by lunchtime and Oregon 3 or 4 hours later, where portage at the Oregon Dam is relatively easy. Stay overnight in Oregon and paddle the remaining 20 miles to Dixon the next day. This route takes in the unique and dramatic rock formations of Castle Rock State Park, which has a nature preserve.
Wolf encourages anyone who hasn’t explored the scenery and wildlife of the Rock to take advantage of convenient and affordable guided trips and canoe rentals provided by the Byron Forest Preserve District. “The Rock River is definitely underutilized,” he observes. “I think the people who live here just take it for granted. If they’d take time to discover what a beautiful place it is, they’d take advantage of it more.”

For Anglers

The Rock River is considered one of Illinois’ finest fishing rivers, especially for walleye and catfish, and boat access is offered at 39 points. Rivera of IDNR confesses, “If I was going to go fishing, I’d go to the Rock in a minute. I’d go sport fishing for smallmouth bass, walleye and flatheads.” Blue gill, largemouth bass, black crappie, channel catfish, white crappie and carp round out the list of game fish that live in the Rock River. Rivera cautions that there are consumption advisories on bottom feeders like carp and large catfish, because of some PCBs and mercury in the substrate, from industry polluting which occurred before the Clean Water Act.
Most of the fishing is catch and release these days. Rivera believes that “people really just enjoy the sport of fishing in the Rock’s beautiful and diverse settings.” Both the IDNR and WDNR stock walleye. The best place to catch walleye is below dams, says Rivera. Some of her favorite fishing spots are at Castle Rock State Park, Grand Detour and Dixon.
McPheron likes to “chink around for bass and walleyes.” He’s found that the best places to fish are where tributaries come in and below dams. His ability to catch an assortment of fish in the Rock – northern pike and smallmouth bass in the spring, channel catfish and walleye during the summer – says as much about the recovery of this region’s largest river as it does about McPheron’s skill with a rod and reel.
Although serious problems remain, scientists studying the Rock River say it’s an example of how effective regulations can restore troubled ecosystems. Human activities, from farming and modern industry to urban development, directly impact a river’s water quality. That water quality directly impacts wildlife, recreation, economic development and even our oceans. The Rock River is a vital and valuable waterway worthy of our attention, appreciation and long-term stewardship. ❚