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Illinois hunting and fishing

Rice Lake improvement project set to begin

June 11, 2011 at 09:18 AM

Peoria Journal-Star

Detailed map of Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area.

It’s called Rice Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, but it’s really for the birds.

The U.S. government, the state of Illinois, hunters and wildlife enthusiasts all want migratory waterfowl to visit Rice Lake in greater numbers, stay longer and improve their health in the process.

After 22 years of planning, and barring any last-minute delays, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) will begin a four-year project this fall with that purpose in mind.

“The project’s been approved,” said Army Corps technical manager Darron Niles. The schedule calls for a September letting of bids for the four-phase, $18.5-million project designed mostly to manage summer-month water levels in the 6,800-acre wetland preserve in Fulton County.

The new multi-pump-and-drain system will replace the single pump in use since the 1960s. The current pump has nowhere near the capacity to draw down summer water levels in Rice Lake and others on the site, including Big Lake, said Bill Douglass, IDNR site superintendent for Rice Lake and nearby Banner Marsh.

With the new system, natural vegetation and hardwood trees to be planted in the project will take root, providing food and protection for the hundreds of thousands of ducks and other migratory shore birds on their trips south in the fall, Douglass said.

New berms, or spillways, also will reduce the erosion that comes with spring river flooding. A fish egress system, improving connections between Rice and Big Lake and the river, will allow more fish to escape from the draining lakes.

That “connectivity” with the river distinguishes the Rice Lake Area from Banner Marsh, several miles north of it along U.S. Route 24, and Emiquon Preserve, operated by the Nature Conservancy eight miles south, Douglass said. Those protected wetlands are separated from the river by levees.

“We want the connectivity, but it creates problems,” Douglass said. One is mid-summer flooding on the river, “really nothing more than a barge canal” bordered almost completely by levees, he said. Another problem is the invasive species in the river, including Asian carp and zebra mussels, that enter Rice Lake.

“It’s really about striking a balance in our case,” said Douglass. At Rice Lake, the scale is tipped in favor of migratory birds.

“We like to say we manage (the site) from hummingbirds to eagles,” or spring to fall, to keep Rice Lake a migration rest stop well imprinted in birds’ habits over generations, Douglass said.

Some controversy followed the improvements project through its public hearing stage last year. Banner-area residents voiced concerns that the three new pumps - with a combined capacity of 133,000 gallons per minute - might also be used to drain land between Rice Lake and Banner Marsh where a company sought to open a coal mine.

Last September, however, a Fulton County Circuit Court judge invalidated the IDNR permit that was issued for the mine. No legal challenge to the ruling has been filed.

Niles said the state, in effect, has already paid its 35-percent share of the project’s cost by purchasing the site’s 1,250-acre Duck Island from private ownership a half dozen years ago, as well as Big Lake, Goose Lake and other locations in the overall Rice Lake area.

“In effect, the state saved us from purchasing them,” and as a result will pay its bill for the project with land credits, similar to an easement. “It can’t sell those properties without our permission,” Niles said.

He said he knows of no future sale plans. On the contrary, he’s looking forward to the thousands of hardwood trees that will replace the farm fields on Duck Island as part of the project.

“We won’t see them” fully grown, he said as he reflected on his 22-year-career as Rice Lake’s superintendent. “They’re for our grandkids.”

Michael Smothers can be reached at 686-3114 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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