- Associated Press - Thursday, February 19, 2015

RINGWOOD, Ill. (AP) - Just around a bend of Nippersink Creek from a large orange excavator, the stream’s banks cut straight down to its bed.

The roots of the prairie grasses were the only thing that kept the dirt from tumbling into the creek.

But eventually the roots will give out, too, and if left to its own devices, the erosion process will begin again.

The crews just upstream - contractors from ENCAP Inc. hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - are hoping to stop that process and return the Nippersink’s banks to a more gentle slope.

The work is part of a five-year ecological restoration project targeting 3.5 miles of the creek and 507 acres of prairies and wetlands from the center of McHenry County Conservation District’s Glacial Park almost to North Solon Road, continuing where other restoration efforts have left off to the edge of the park’s boundary.

All the heavy lifting will be done during this first stage, which is set to wrap up by April 1, said Jonathan Koepke, a vice president and general manager at ENCAP Inc.

The DeKalb-based firm, which specializes in ecological restoration work, is taking advantage of the cold weather to truck out large amounts of dirt to where a natural hill created when the glaciers melted used to exist, he said.

Most of the to-do list focuses on rebuilding the creek’s banks, installing artificial rapids designed to aerate the water and raise the water line, and mowing down large sections of invasive species like buckthorn that have pushed out native species and kept new oak and hickory trees from growing, said Gabe Powers, the conservation district’s natural resources projects coordinator.

“It’s a game of light,” Powers said while walking through a field scattered with the stumps of buckthorn, a shrub brought over from Europe and planted densely to build hedges designed to keep cattle in their fields.

An invasive species, buckthorn doesn’t have the natural predators that would keep its growth in check, he said. Its dominance has been so complete that oak trees estimated to be 150 to 200 years old have lost their lower branches as the buckthorn blocked out the sun.

The next four years of the project will be focused on making sure the buckthorn and other invasive species don’t return as they have after previous clearing efforts, said Ed Collins, the district’s director of land preservation and natural resources.

The field of ecological restoration is only about 35 years old, and since its inception, conservation districts and other entities focused on restoring habitats have had to learn what works and what doesn’t, he said.

That process has been slow because it takes a couple years of plant growth to see what sticks, Powers said, adding that the conservation district is pretty confident this time it will work.

A previous restoration project at the North Branch Conservation Area done about 10 years ago using similar methods has been very successful, he said.

But the work isn’t just about restoring habitats - the newly sloped banks of Nippersink Creek will restore Glacial Park’s role as a flood plain, potentially alleviating some flooding downstream in Spring Grove and Fox Lake, Collins said. A single acre can capture 325,851 gallons of flood water in its soil.

“In one of these big flood events, that is one great big lake out there,” Collins said, gesturing out of the Lost Valley Visitor Center toward the prairies and savannas that make up Glacial Park.

The conservation district heard from downstream residents that they were already seeing positive effects from the last restoration project, which tackled another 3.5 miles of the Nippersink, Powers said.

The work also will mean easier access to the creek for kayak and canoe users as well as those fishing, both sandhill cranes and people, Collins said.

“When some people think about stream restoration, they think about restoring it to some state from the past, but that state doesn’t exist anymore,” said Powers, adding that restoration is more about restoring functionality to a stream that serves recreational and water management purposes instead of agricultural uses.

The restoration project is expected to cost about $4.9 million and is being paid for by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is also providing technical expertise and was in charge of hiring the contractor. The conservation district is covering its portion of the grant with previous land acquisitions and in-house assistance.

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Source: The (Crystal Lake) Northwest Herald, https://bit.ly/1KdyiEm


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