New Spring Brook restoration becomes a whole-watershed effort

The partnership between TWI and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County to restore a degraded stream has expanded to include public and private "neighbors" of the two targeted forest preserves and individual homeowners throughout the Spring Brook watershed.

The Spring Brook restoration was originally planned just for the three-mile stretch of degraded stream within the Blackwell and St. James Farm forest preserves, two popular preserves in DuPage County southwest of Wheaton. TWI and the District will partner to reconnect the stream with its natural floodplain and restore the corridor's wetlands and prairie. Initial on-the-ground work is set to begin in late 2013.

Now, the effort will extend beyond the preserve boundaries to engage the whole community in rehabilitating the stream across its seven-square-mile watershed. The Conservation Foundation will bring its award-winning Conservation@Home program to Wheaton homeowners to show how features in their yards like rain barrels and native landscaping can improve the stream's water quality. The project also has generated interest from public and private entities upstream in making changes on their own properties to benefit Spring Brook.

"This is not a large watershed; for example, there are only about 140 landowners living along the stream," said John "Ole" Oldenburg, the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County's director of natural resources, at a recent Morton Arboretum discussion on urban wetland restoration. "That size makes this doable. Individuals can take actions that really contribute to the success of this project and benefit their local waterway."

A participant asks a question in a discussion at the Morton Arboretum about urban wetland restoration, which included the Spring Brook project.

The restoration plan within the St. James Farm and Blackwell forest preserves includes removing a small dam; returning the stream to its historic meandering path; recolonizing native fish, as well as mussels and other invertebrates; restoring adjacent wetland, prairie, and savanna habitats; and reintroducing native plants. This work will dovetail with the Forest Preserve District's efforts to improve public access through additional trail connections, giving families in this highly populated area more high-quality recreational and educational opportunities.

However, because much of Spring Brook's watershed is upstream of the restoration, runoff, invasive species reinvasion, and other stressors would continue to threaten these downstream improvements. The stream will not become and remain clean enough to sustain native fish and mussels unless upstream changes are also made. Therefore, community-wide collaboration is critical to making the Spring Brook restoration successful and sustainable.

In addition to actions by individual homeowners, local church and school groups can get involved by modifying how they care for their own property and by becoming volunteers and advocates for the waterway. Open-space landowners such as golf courses and park districts—many of which are already making efforts to re-naturalize their landscapes—will have the impetus to explore more ways to improve water quality and promote the return of native wildlife.

Successfully restoring the stream in this heavily developed context presents both a challenge and a great opportunity, said Paul Botts, TWI's executive director.

"There are dozens of channelized, degraded streams just like this one scattered across the Chicago metropolitan area, and to date restoration has been attempted on very few of them," said Botts. "Experts agree that it's a weak link so far in conservation in this region. If we can involve the whole community in cleaning up Spring Brook on a watershed scale, it would provide a model of stream restoration success that could be used throughout the region."