Soil is being washed from farmland and construction sites. The soil clogs up many rivers and lakes around the Great Lakes region. It can harm plants and aquatic wildlife in the waterways. The sediment can also fill the channels and harbors, blocking ship traffic. But a pilot program in one Great Lakes state is using the sediment in a new way. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:
Soil is being washed from farmland and construction sites. The soil clogs up many rivers
and lakes around the Great Lakes region. It can harm plants and aquatic wildlife in the
waterways. The sediment can also fill the channels and harbors, blocking ship traffic.
But a pilot program in one Great Lakes state is using the sediment in a new way. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports:
The Illinois River used to be an average of more than twenty feet deep. These days, the
river averages a depth of about two feet. The river stretches nearly from Chicago across
the state of Illinois and joins the Mississippi near St. Louis. The entire length of the
Illinois River is clogged with sediment that’s eroded mostly from farmland. Besides
blocking navigation, the sediment buries aquatic plants, destroying a food source for fish
(sound of a dredger)
A giant dredger is taking deep bites into the muck beneath the water’s surface that’s
clogging up the bottom of the river near Peoria. The bright orange clamshell bucket is
filling up barges that will take 100,000 tons of sediment to Chicago. There, it will be
used to cover up the remains of an old steel plant and create 17 acres of parkland.
Bob Foster is a project manager with the Chicago Park District. He says the steel mill
site is useless without the sediment from the Illinois River:
“What’s left there now is several foundations and forty feet of slag. It’s pretty hard to
plant trees in forty feet of slag. This project would not be happening unless we were
receiving this soil, this dredged material, because soil is our number one cost in park
State and federal officials say this idea helps both the Illinois River by clearing out
sediment… and the city of Chicago by providing topsoil for a park. The program also has
the support of environmentalists, although they do sound a word of caution.
Marc Miller is an environmentalist who serves on the Illinois River Coordinating
Council, a group of public and private organizations trying to help the river. He supports
the dredging program, but says it would be better if the government, farmers and
developers would do more to stop soil erosion.
“That’s why the Illinois Coordinating Council has many irons in the fire in addressing
these issues. It’s going to take prevention in order to stop the kind of problems that have
been going on for decades.”
This kind of program won’t work everywhere. John Marlin is with the Illinois
Department of Natural Resources. He’s done a lot of studies on the possible uses for
dredged material. But, because some sediment is contaminated with pesticides or old
factory pollution, you have to test the muck and know where it’s going to be used.
“There are definitely places where the soil in the lakes and the Illinois River is too
polluted to use. But there are other places where it is clean, and one of our jobs is going
to be to find out where it is clean and safe to use and make judgments accordingly. There
will be a lot more questions as time goes on.”
But public officials behind this project are concentrating solely on the positives of the
project. Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn told supporters at a rally on the banks of the
Illinois River that the dredging program will be the beginning of a much larger program
that will benefit several states.
“This is a model, we want to replicate it, we want to do it elsewhere. We are open for
business. If you need topsoil somewhere, we got it. (laughter) And by digging up the
sediment and making the river a little deeper, we can help our fish, our wildlife, our
waterfowl, we can help our boating, our recreation.”
To have any significant impact on the Illinois River, this kind of dredging program will
have to be expanded exponentially. This first project will remove 100,000 tons of
sediment. Each year more than 14 million tons of sediment is washed into the Illinois
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.