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Water begins to flow over the south levee of Thompson Lake at The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve. Photo by Chris Young

Nature Conservancy: Wildlife areas can help store floodwater

April 28, 2013 at 08:07 AM

The State Journal-Register

The record flood on the Illinois River should leave no lasting effects on efforts to bring back the Emiquon flood plain, a Nature Conservancy official said.

“At this point we don’t think it will have a negative effect on the restoration,” said Michael Reuter, director of The Nature Conservancy’s North American Freshwater Program and Great Rivers Partnership.

On Wednesday, water starting coming over the south end of the Thompson Lake levee. From the air it looked like several small streams dribbling over the levee.

“Down on the ground there is a lot more water (coming over) than it appears to be from above,” Reuter said. “We’ve seen no structural damage so far, but there are probably half a dozen places it is coming over the levee.”

The levee was built to protect land for farming after the Thompson Lake was drained in the 1920s. It can withstand river levels of 27 feet. The previous record flood level, in 1943, was 27.1 feet. According to the National Weather Service, the Illinois River at Havana stood at 27.75 feet Thursday afternoon.

As of Thursday morning, the water was not coming over with enough force to damage the levee by scouring, Reuter said.

The river is not predicted to go below 27 feet until sometime Monday afternoon.

At other sites along the river, managers are waiting until the water recedes to see what needs to be done.

“Once the water levels go down we’re going to have to go through and evaluate the levees and our other infrastructure to see where the damages are and what needs to get fixed,” said Bob Barry, manager of the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge complex headquartered north of Havana.

Planned to relieve pressure

While managers would prefer to have control over water levels — including during floods — to provide optimum wildlife and fish habitat year after year, backwater areas can play a valuable role during times of extreme flood.

Reuter said wildlife areas help store floodwaters during events like this one.

Most wildlife areas are protected by levees lower than those that protect farms and towns. They are designed to help managers manipulate water levels for wildlife habitat, not keep out extreme floods.

At Chautauqua, levees are constructed with low sections covered with a layer of concrete to prevent scouring. These “grouted spillways” let water flow in without damaging the levee system too badly.

Emiquon sits behind a much taller agricultural levee, and Reuter said The Conservancy is planning to install a control structure to allow water to drain out after a flood. It also could act as a safety valve if floods threaten nearby towns.

“While our primary focus was restoration of fish and wildlife habitat, being able to operate Emiquon in a way to relieve pressure on people’s homes and cities and towns nearby — that is an important role Emiquon can play (in the future),” he said.

“This kind of overtopping is compatible with our objectives there,” Reuter said. “If it can help remove some of the pressure from nearby towns and cities that is a good thing.”

He said climate models show 100-year flood events becoming more frequent. And repeated flooding wreaks havoc on roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Reuter said the pumps that used to keep farmland dry still work, but operating them is very expensive. A new structure would rely on gravity to move water in or out.

Reuter said a price tag has not been determined yet, but the cost likely would be “several million dollars.”

Reuter said the amount of water coming in should only amount to a matter of inches over 6,000 acres. Still, it would be costly to move all that water back into the Illinois River.

“(The recent flood) shows how important it is to be able to get the water back out,” he said.

Getting back to work

At Lake Chautauqua, the refuge was almost indistinguishable from the river when viewed from the air. Only a thin line — really the cross dike between the north and south pools — was visible.

Barry said the refuge was in the process of lowering water levels to create mudflats for shorebird migration when the flood hit.

Waterfowl migration is mostly over, so Barry said migrating ducks — with the exception of a few northern shovelers and blue-wing teal — weren’t really affected.

“When the water started coming up was when we were getting shorebirds coming through,” he said. “So we are probably missing the bulk of the shorebird migration.”

As soon as the water recedes, wildlife managers will get back to work.

Barry said plans still are in place to draw down both pools of Lake Chautauqua to remove Asian carp that flowed in with floodwaters, and allow the lakebeds to dry out so vegetation can grow to feed migrating birds in the fall.

“As long as we don’t get any additional flooding, we can start drawing down the south pool during the first week in June,” he said. “We’ll probably try the north pool at the same time.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528. Follow him at

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