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Jason Beverlin of The Nature Conservancy removes an interpretive sign from the Emiquon Preserve’s visotor use area. Record flood levels are predicted for the Illinois River at Havana in the next few days. Photo by Chris Young.

Managers of wildlife areas brace for record flooding

April 20, 2013 at 07:44 AM

The State Journal-Register

HAVANA — Jason Beverlin was packing up interpretive signs at The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve Friday in anticipation of record flood levels that potentially could overtop the levee protecting the 7,000-acre preserve.

But other than moving equipment out of the way, there is little the managers of wildlife areas along the Illinois River can do as the river is predicted to rise 10 feet in the next five days.

“It’s coming up so fast,” Beverlin said. “We just don’t have the resources or the time to raise our levee; it’s three-quarters of a mile long.”

At Emiquon on Friday, Beverlin, the Illinois River program director for The Nature Conservancy, went to work removing informational panels and spotting scopes from the lakeside Wetland Observatory.

He said The Conservancy also would try to move water pumps, breaker boxes and other electrical gear to higher ground.

“This (visitor use area) was built to take water,” he said. “Everything was built to withstand a flood, but the electric motors that run the pumps are not built to take floods. They weigh 5,500 pounds each, and you would need a crane or a track hoe to be able to lift them. And just getting down the levee right now is not the best.”

The National Weather Service predicts the river level at Havana will crest mid-week at 29 feet, two feet higher than the Thompson Lake levee. That is well above the record crest of 27.1 feet set in 1943.

The Thompson Lake levee, built to allow fertile river bottomland to be farmed 90 years ago, has never been overtopped, Beverlin said.

Most levees that protect conservation areas are much lower than Thompson Lake’s levee.

At the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge across the Illinois River from Emiquon, water started “trickling through” Thursday as the river reached 16.4 feet.

As the river continued to rise — measured at 18.8 feet Friday afternoon — Bob Barry, manager of the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge complex near Havana said the north pool of Lake Chautauqua was opened up to allow the river and the refuge to equalize.

“That way, when water goes over the top of the levee, it is not going to rush in and wash out the levee,” he said. “That way it will minimize damage to the levee system.”

Levels at most wildlife areas are designed more to keep water in for habitat management than to keep floodwaters out.

Carp concerns

Barry said refuges on both sides of the Illinois River were in the process of drawing down water levels to create mudflats for migrating shorebirds to use. That work has been wiped out.

“We take two steps forward, and one giant, football-field-sized step back,” he said.

Water isn’t the only thing managers want to keep out of wildlife areas.

Barry said a flood of Asian carp pouring into the restoration is a major concern.

The carp are non-native fish that complicate efforts to establish vegetation favored by migrating birds.

Beverlin said The Conservancy may try to address some portions of the Thompson Lake levee that are a bit lower than others.

“Levees are not perfectly level,” he said. “We may dump some sandbags in the low areas.”

Doug Jallas, who oversees several Illinois River sites for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources sounded discouraged Friday at the prospects of a major flood.

“It’s going to take everything,” he said, meaning the water will cover most bottomland sites, including roads and other infrastructure.

Jallas said work is ongoing at state sites like Sanganois, Rice Lake and Banner Marsh to move equipment to higher ground.

Culverts are being opened to relieve the pressure of swift-flowing water.

“Two days of rain are going to cost a lot,” he said. “It will take a long time to recoup all of this. It’s a bad deal.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528. John Reynolds can be reached at 788-1524.

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