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Illinois hunting and fishing

After eight years, refuge levee repairs complete at the Sanganois

December 12, 2010 at 06:54 AM

The State Journal-Register

The swirling flock of ducks and geese above a patch of open water in the Barkhausen Refuge reminds Doug Jallas of what once was.

With repairs to some critical levees completed recently, the refuge may someday return to its potential and shelter tens of thousands of ducks and geese.

“I’d say there are about 3,000,” Jallas says, peering through binoculars at Canada geese, mallards, pintails, gadwall and a few teal. “But there used to be 50,000.”

The Barkhausen Refuge is part of the Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area, a popular public waterfowl-hunting area sandwiched between the Sangamon and Illinois rivers that straddles Cass and Mason counties.

Part of the refuge is open for hunting, while other portions, such as the Barkhausen Refuge, are set aside as rest areas.

Jallas, the site superintendent for the Sanganois, says the Barkhausen Refuge once was one of the top waterfowl rest areas in the state.

Then the Sangamon River crashed the party.

The river breached the Barkhausen Levee in 2002, and it has stood open to the river ever since.

Illinois hunting and fishing

The levee has been broken and fixed multiple times. Since the most recent break in 2002, the breach widened to 180 feet and churning water created a deep hole. Sand and silt poured in.

Before the Sangamon River was channelized and straightened 60 years ago, the river passed through Sanganois, breaking into a braided channel. But those many, narrow channels tended to clog with downed trees and dam up the Sangamon, flooding nearby farm fields.

When the Sangamon smashed through the Barkhausen Levee, it flowed through the site over the old course. With the Sangamon out of control, site personnel had an almost impossible time managing water levels.

With modern rivers channelized and dammed for navigation, wetlands have to be manipulated by means of levees and pumps to mimic historic wet and dry cycles.

Wetlands have to dry out for a time to foster growth of annual plants that provide food for migrating waterfowl. Improperly timed floods can wipe out a whole summer’s growth.

Illinois hunting and fishing

The project to repair the Barkhausen and White’s levees that protect the refuge and the rest of the site cost $2.9 million.

One part of the project was to repair the hole in the BarkhausenHe says the Friends of Sanganois group was vigilant in its effort to get the levee fixed.

Bo Arnold, president of Friends of Sanganois, says the members never gave up.

“It is really a bipartisan project politically, and a bipartisan project with public and private ground hunters coming together,” he says. “Everybody understands Sanganois is in a central location.

“This collaborative effort has worked really well,” Arnold says. “They should take a good hard look at how this worked. It just paid off.”

Jallas says Tim Hickman of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was instrumental in guiding the process to fruition.

When the Barkhausen Levee was open to the river, the Sangamon often flowed over the site’s roads and punished its interior levees.

“The repairs have already significantly — and I mean significantly — reduced the flooding in the heart of the Sanganois,” Jallas says.

During the past three wet years, water could be found flowing across roads eight months of the year, he says.

“This has literally stopped the Sangamon River from cutting us off from the rest of our site,” Jallas says.

While driving around the Sanganois’ levees Wednesday, Jallas points out features of Illinois bottomland forests that are protected by the levees — features that are all but gone today.

Bottomland hardwoods such as pin oaks still persist at Sanganois.

“This is my favorite spot on the whole Sanganois,” he says, gesturing out the window. “The pin oaks are strung out all through here. You can see hundreds of yards without invasive weeds blocking the view.”

Jallas says he and his staff observed wood ducks walking through the woods devouring acorns this year.

“They looked like a flock of chickens, climbing over each other to get acorns,” he says. “It was something to see.”

The sun lit up the wings of ducks landing near the White’s Levee on Wednesday. Against the backdrop of the timber, they looked from a distance like big snowflakes settling to the ground.

Like the pin oaks, Jallas doesn’t want to see the ducks disappear.

“We’ve lost the flights of ducks, geese and swans that staged here,” he says. “The goal here is to bring them back.”

New pumps paid for with duck stamp dollars

Waterfowl hunters are helping the Sanganois do a better job managing waterfowl habitat, thanks to stamps purchased as part of their hunting license.

Two new Caterpillar diesel engines will power pumps that bring water from the Sangamon River to duck habitat are awaiting installation.

They were purchased with about $200,000 provided by Illinois Duck Stamp funds.

Site superintendent Doug Jallas of the Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area says the pumps are sorely needed.

“They will provide water for the Barkhausen and Marion Refuges and public hunting areas like the Baker, walk-in and Low Country units,” Jallas says.

Managing for waterfowl requires wetlands to dry out in summer so plants can grow and produce seeds favored by migrating ducks.

In the fall, managers flood these areas to give ducks access to the food.

“This is how we will get our water to the duck habitat in the fall,” Jallas says of the role the pumps will play.

He says duck stamp dollars are dedicated 100 percent to pay for projects.
“These are very, very well-spent dollars.”

Illinois hunting and fishing

Protecting remaining wetlands adjacent to Sanganois

Land between the Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area and the Illinois River may constitute the largest remaining tract of undeveloped wetlands in the river valley.

So, Ducks Unlimited is working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to protect those wetlands for the future.

Eric Schenck, Illinois biologist with Ducks Unlimited, says his organization is employing three approaches to protect habitat.

“We are purchasing strategic parcels that can be donated or sold to DNR to become part of Sanganois, and purchasing conservation easements on privately owned lands to protect natural wetland features,” he says.

The purchased land is a 452-acre parcel bisected by Pluckeman’s Slough.

Schenck says DU also worked with the Illinois Conservation Foundation to secure a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to pay for the easement on another 426-acre parcel known as Sangamon Bay.

“Third, we are purchasing lands that come up for sale — 232 acres of Treadway Lake — and then we sell them back to another private individual subject to a DU conservation easement. We have protected 1,110 acres so far.”

Schenck says areas between the Sanganois and the river are vast and roadless, an example of wilderness that has all but disappeared.

“The goal is to maintain the west side of Sanganois in a natural state without a lot of levees that are costly to repair and maintain,” Schenck says. “This region of Sanganois, often referred to as the ‘low country,’ transitions into Treadway Lake, Pluckeman’s Slough, Sangamon Bay and other privately owned lands along the Illinois River.”

Schenck says securing easements on large parcels keeps them from being broken up into small tracts that would all be managed separately.

“With this complex hydrology, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to start building all this infrastructure on small tracts,” he says.

“The hydrology can be overwhelming on such a large scale.”
Schenck says few people are familiar with the Sanganois and its associated wetlands.

“The notion that there are literally square miles of this wilderness is really an interesting thing that a lot of people don’t even realize,” he says. “It’s a place that ought to be getting a lot more attention than it does.”

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