TWI and partners plan Calumet-area marsh restoration

The Calumet region on Chicago’s Southeast Side is known mostly for its gritty industrial history, so many people are surprised to hear it has significant ecological value still. The Wetlands Initiative is working closely with Audubon Chicago Region, the Chicago Park District, and other partners on a conservation action planning effort that will inform restoration and management of important remnant wetland sites in the Calumet area. TWI’s first on-the-ground restoration there, at Indian Ridge Marsh, is set to begin in spring 2016.

The partnership, known as the Calumet Wetland Working Group, is conducting a detailed assessment of 20 wetland sites on and near historic Lake Calumet. The partners are analyzing GIS and biological data, and Gary Sullivan, TWI’s senior ecologist, has visited all the sites to ground-truth their hydrology, plant communities, and potential to be improved. The goal of this inventory is to identify the sites with the greatest potential for reestablishing functional wetlands, particularly for restoring rare hemi-marsh habitat to benefit wetland birds and wildlife.

The Calumet region has a legacy of heavy industrial uses. Closure of many of those operations in the 1970s and 1980s left the area with old slag deposits, contaminated “brownfields,” and more. However, more recently, various organizations have come together to work on revitalizing the Calumet both economically and ecologically. The Millennium Reserve is one example, of which TWI is now a partner.

A view of Indian Ridge Marsh in the Calumet area, where TWI will begin restoration in 2016. 

It won’t be easy, but tackling the restoration challenges in the Calumet area offers great potential rewards, said TWI Executive Director Paul Botts. “Some of the Calumet sites are extremely degraded—more so than any other restoration project we’ve undertaken before—and the urban setting brings a whole new set of challenges. At the same time, this area still contains some of the most valuable remnant wetlands in the Chicago region. There would be huge benefits to biodiversity if we can bring back some functional habitats here.”

The assessment specifically focuses on opportunities to restore hemi-marsh because this wetland type is one of the most important for wetland-dependent bird species and is also disappearing rapidly in the Calumet region. Hemi-marsh has permanent standing water and features an open mix of emergent or floating plants like cattails and white water lilies and submersed vegetation like sago pondweed. Visitors to TWI’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge can see vast restored examples of this habitat and the spectacular numbers of waterfowl that use it.

The interspersion of open water and dense vegetation found in a hemi-marsh offers ideal places for many birds and wildlife to feed, nest, and hide. Several bird species that are state-threatened or endangered like the Common Gallinule, Pied-billed Grebe, and King Rail rely on this habitat for cover and breeding. As hemi-marsh in the Calumet region has been degraded or lost, so have the wetland birds disappeared. Restoration and management efforts could bring them back.

An example of healthy hemi-marsh at TWI's Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. 

“Healthy hemi-marshes are characterized by dynamic water levels that vary seasonally, both within and among years,” said Gary Sullivan, TWI’s senior ecologist. “Natural water level fluctuations no longer occur at most Calumet sites, but could be managed to simulate more natural rhythms and allow marsh vegetation to reestablish, expand, and thrive.”

The conservation planning effort has found it would be possible to put water level controls in place at 12 of the 20 sites. The partners are also using size, current land ownership, historical significance, proximity to neighboring sites with high hemi-marsh potential, and other criteria to prioritize sites for management work.

One of the top-priority sites to emerge from the planning process is Indian Ridge Marsh, a 165-acre site along the Calumet River that was once home to a large colony of state-endangered Black-crowned Night-Herons. The site is owned by the City of Chicago, and the Chicago Park District has a long-term lease on the land and will be managing it. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently completed a five-year effort to restore native vegetation here for people and wildlife, but certain work items are still needed to bring back the site’s ecological character.

With funding through the Chi-Cal Rivers Fund, a public–private grant program administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, TWI will begin removing invasive species and installing native plants across a 32-acre area of Indian Ridge Marsh in 2016. A second phase of work, pending funding, would soften the steep shoreline banks at Indian Ridge Marsh to create a transition zone from wet prairie to emergent marsh habitat.

At the same time, collaborating with the Chicago Park District, Audubon will lead a new effort to monitor marsh birds at Indian Ridge Marsh and other sites, develop new interpretive signs, and work to improve public access to Indian Ridge Marsh. Ultimately, as rich hemi-marsh habitats return to this area, wildlife like the night-herons may return too—and so can people to explore the area’s natural treasures.

The burnt-out hulk of a car, an old foundation, and other debris will need to be removed to restore Indian Ridge Marsh. 

A number of broader efforts are underway to transform the Calumet region to benefit people and wildlife. The Millennium Reserve is a partnership of government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit groups working toward a shared vision for environmental and economic renewal of the Calumet and Southeast Chicago areas as a region of thriving commerce, communities, and wildlife.

The Wetlands Initiative is a partner in this important undertaking and is “actively exploring” more possibilities for design or implementation of specific restorations, Botts said.

“The Calumet area’s huge restoration possibilities have been known for a long time in the conservation world, so it’s exciting now to see a lot of new energy going into on-the-ground action,” he said. “Restoring wetland habitats in difficult or unique circumstances is something that TWI knows how to do, and it’s at the heart of what needs to happen in the Calumet.”