Creation of a Watershed Action Plan for the North Branch of the Chicago River

Creation of a Watershed Action Plan for the North Branch of the Chicago River

By David Ramsay, Friends of the Chicago River

River in Illinois. In Cook County there was no coordinated effort to manage their effects on the river. Therefore, stream banks were eroding, habitat was degrading, and the water quality was declining. The Friends of the Chicago River (Friends) are developing a specific action plan with the forest preserves and municipalities. This had been completed in Lake County by the Lake County Storm Management Commission, but is still ongoing in Cook County.

Friends met with 7 municipalities in Cook County to determine issues and opportunities. A detailed assessment of the conditions of the river has been completed: a consultant performed a stream walk, and fish and macroinvertebrate sampling data have been collected by the IL DNR, the IL EPA, the Chicago River School Network, the IL River Watch, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Implementation is beginning in Lake County through the funding of projects that address wetland restoration, retrofitting storm water outfalls, and other best management practices (BMPs).

What do you consider the key to your success?

Working closely with partner organizations, and making the project a collaborative effort.

How would you outline the steps in organizing your project to advise another group on a similar project?

The handbook called

Voices of the Watershed

was written.  Call the Friends of the Chicago River for copies.

What have been the effects of this effort on your organization’s work?

The effort has resulted in the development of good working relationships with key watershed stakeholders in the headwaters. Better communications with the municipalities, park districts, and forest preserves has resulted in the expansion of the organization’s restoration and education programs.

How has the project affected your community?

The project provided a focal point for conservation minded people and a non-controversial rallying point for some of the communities. It provided people with volunteer opportunities.

What particular stumbling blocks, challenges, or defeats did you encounter?

Progress can move slowly with government agencies. Friends had to be persistent in developing good relationships with key staff.

How many people were involved?

Although it is difficult to estimate, probably several hundred.

How many people-hours were spent on the various aspects of the project?

Hundreds– There are 3 full-time staff working on the project.  There is also the staff of the Lake County Storm Water Management Commission. There were also countless hours put in by others (partners, government and municipal agencies, the park districts, and private organizations).

How was public involvement motivated and facilitated?

Presentations were given to garden clubs, historical societies, and civic organizations. Canoe trips and conferences were held. A brochure was widely distributed. Two types of workshops were held (one for engineers and developers and one for golf course managers).

The outreach was targeted more to specific audiences than to the general public. Some of the projects have received good publicity. Publicity will be wider when implementation begins.

How was public education a component of your program?

Since 1996, Friends has been directing the Chicago River School Network, which is a well-developed educational program for K-12 students. Currently, 154 teachers and 54 schools are active in the program. It involves teacher training for curriculum development for a variety of subjects relating to the river, not just science. The network has been more successful in Cook County than Lake because Chicago (Cook) schools need more resources than those in the suburbs (Lake).

Conservation design workshops were developed for engineers and planners and for golf course managers. There are 40 golf courses in the watershed.

What was the primary means of communication?

Individual and group meetings, workshops, phone, email.

What resources were available/acquired/tapped into?

60% of the funding came from the Section 319 non-point grant program (of the Clean Water Act). It’s required that 40% of this funding be matched by other sources. Funding also came from foundation and corporation grants and government agency in-kind contributions. It’s essential to have a wide variety of funding such as the 1999 grant from GLAHNF.

What level of media exposure were you able to obtain and how did it affect your efforts?

About a half dozen news articles in local papers in both counties, but it has not been that helpful to the project

Additional Information: Related Project: The Somme Prairie Recovery Plan, covers a two-acre sub watershed and nature preserve located in Northbrook. Managers are finding ways to reduce erosion into a tributary. The solution is to reduce the amount of storm water entering the tributary (episodic inputs of large volumes of storm water cause erosion, ‘flashiness’) by utilizing small scale BMPs on individual properties. BMPs include designing rooftop gardens on large commercial flat-roofed buildings, planting native plants in drainage areas, incorporating native vegetation and water gardens into private landscapes to keep water where it falls. This situation points out one of the difficulties arising from the lack of coordination among municipalities that impact the river. Friends is working to bring the parties together to coordinate actions that affect the river.

Friends of the Chicago River
407 S. Dearborn
Suite 1580
Chicago, IL 60605

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.