ULLIN — Work has already begun on the Cache River Maintenance Project.
The work is being done to improve drainage in the Cache River watershed.
There are two agencies involved and two different approaches for the work. The project was initiated by the Big Creek Drainage District earlier this year.
The drainage district’s proposal was to remove all vegetation, including trees and saplings from the river bank, extending 30-40 feet from the edge of the river.
“The Drainage District has started work down by Sandusky Road and will work their way upstream to Karnak,” said Liz Jones, assistant manager of the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. “The Drainage District has requested permission from private property owners. It is our understanding private property owners can say no. There have been landowners that have said no.”
However, that approach, which eradicates habitat for several species, including some threatened and endangered, didn’t fit with the mission of the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge, which owns property along the length of the river.
Through the intercession of Sen. Dick Durbin’s office, the drainage district and Cypress Creek have reached a compromise.
“Option 1 is U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contracting an amphibious excavator to come into the river and only remove debris dams,” said Liz Jones, assistant manager of Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. “We have worked with the Drainage District on open flow for years and under this option the Refuge will remove debris dams and take any tree at the stump that looks like it is going to fall in 3-5 years, something that looks undercut or if the roots are washed out. That’s what we will do.”
That is the scope of work that will be done on parts of the river maintained by the Cypress Creek Refuge. Private land owners can also opt for the more minimalist approach.
“When private property is involved, we also have to ask for permission to move this machine through," Jones said. "We have funding and a contract to do work and the Drainage District has agreed to pay for that work on private property. They are working with us.”
Maintaining existing drainage in an environmentally sensitive manner is an obligation of the Cypress Creek Refuge. Most of the flooding on the refuge and surrounding property occurs when the Mississippi River floods and the Cache River waters have nowhere to go.
“As stated in the establishing environmental assessment the (United States Fish and Wildlife Service) will maintain its reach of the Cache River and other segments of existing drainage networks in coordination with drainage districts,” Jones said. “As long as I’ve been here, Refuge staff have strived to maintain the existing drainage network. We can’t legally contribute to flooding on private property.”
“As managers of natural features and ecosystem services being held in trust for public use, especially in a floodplain, we have to make sure we fulfill all of our responsibilities to cultural, agricultural and natural resources," said Mark Guetersloh of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, one of the members of the Cache River Wetlands Joint Venture Partnership. "The partnership is committed to this mandate and so is the Division of Natural Heritage, which means maintaining existing drainage on lands we do not own or have easements on while at the same time preserving imperiled species and high quality natural communities. The key here is, that while this river segment was channelized in the early 1950s from Ullin south to the Mounds diversion, it still functions as a river and provides habitat for threatened and endangered species.”
He added that rivers naturally contain some structure, and that usually isn’t the primary variable in efficient drainage.
"Drainage efficiency is affected by a number of variables, including and especially outlet capacity and gradient,” Guetersloh said. “A certain amount of structure in the channel bed and on the banks, will have little or no impact on flooding if the open channel is carrying all the water gradient will allow.”
“In our eyes, there is value to beaver dams and debris dams on the Refuge as long as they are not impacting private property,” Jones said. “It’s a balancing act and we must take into account private property rights."