Tucked into the southwest corner of the University of Illinois’s Urbana-Champaign campus, just beyond student housing and mostly hidden by roadside grasses, a ditch runs along a solar farm and through research farmland. This is the humble beginning of the 125-mile-long Embarras (pronounced “AM-bra”) River, which drains over a million and a half Illinois acres into waterways that flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Embarras river is home to colonies of the endangered Indiana brown bat and the northernmost, and only, population of harlequin darters (a small, colorful, ray-finned fish). A band of the Miami Tribe, the Piankashaw, built a major settlement at the mouth of the Embarras on the Wabash River in the 1600s. And In the 1700s, George Rogers Clark and his army followed the Embarras to the Wabash to Vincennes, securing the territory for the American side in the Revolutionary War.
But today this river is in trouble.
According to the 2022 Embarras River Watershed Management Plan, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency identified much of this 245-mile watershed as “impaired.” Lauren Spaniol, resource conservationist for the Coles County Soil and Water Conservation District, notes this is typical of agricultural watersheds in the state, where “most water quality issues come from nitrates, phosphorus, and sediment.”
In other words, while some of the river’s pollution comes from urban runoff, erosion, or flooding, a larger problem is that farmers up and down the river apply fertilizers to their fields or raise animals nearby. Rain and snow send the fertilizer and manure (or “nutrients”) into the river, causing environmental and human health issues downstream.
Nutrient pollution is one of the most serious water pollution problems facing the nation, and addressing it is especially important for cities like Charleston that use the river for drinking water. Fortunately, observed Spaniol, “there’s a lot of interest from stakeholders,” a good sign for conservationists.
A System-Level Approach to River Restoration
Grand Prairie Friends, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving tallgrass prairie and woodlands in east-central Illinois, is one stakeholder working to rescue the Embarras. The organization takes a system-level approach that takes into account not just the water running through a watershed, but how it interacts with sediment, soil, plants, and animals. When one or more of these dimensions are disrupted, crucial connections are lost.
“River corridors are natural connectors,” said Sarah Livesay, Grand Prairie Friends’s executive director. For her organization, conservation strategies that restore wetlands, woodlands, and prairie along the Embarras support native biodiversity, provide flood protection and recreation opportunities, and help filter out nutrient pollution.
When it began in 1984 the focus was on acquiring scattered remnant prairie tracts in northern Champaign County, but over time it expanded to landscape-scale conservation. ”We now know that nothing likes to live on an island, “ Livesay explained; “no animal or plant species can live that way.”
During the last decade Grand Prairie Friends transitioned to acquiring and restoring land along the Embarras River in the hope of stitching together a river corridor for native plants and animals, and in the process improving the river’s water quality and native biodiversity. Currently they have restored 14 miles of land along the river between Fox Ridge State Park and the town of Villa Grove.
Ruth Riegel, a Coles County horse breeder who lives along Hurricane Creek, a tributary to the Embarras, wasn’t initially thrilled to see nature trails built by Grand Prairie Friends in Warbler Woods, a place she used to go birding. “I didn’t like to see the whole world acting like it was their personal discovery. But I’ve grudgingly come around to the fact that they are doing a lot of good,” she said.
Revising Farming Practices for Healthier Rivers
While Grand Prairie Friends is working to transform land along the river, another not-for-profit organization, Grassland 2.0, is working directly with farmers to transform practices. Grassland 2.0 has a five-year United States Department of Agriculture Coordinated Agricultural Projects (CAP) grant to explore what farms along the Embarras River could look like in the future.
According to Grassland 2.0 team member Randy Jackson, the Campbell-Bascom Professor of Grassland Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a good place to start is by asking farmers, “when your children inherit your farm, what do you want them to have?”
Once these goals are articulated, he said, his organization can help communities explore what is possible in the landscape, design a new supply chain, and incentivize and manage change. All these have the goal of replacing some current farming practices (such as farming right up to a riverbank) with more sustainable practices (like planting riverside buffers of perennial grasses), even if this means taking some land out of production. In fact, Jackson explained, taking land out of production in favor of grasses will eventually benefit farmers. Grasses have deep, fibrous roots that hold and build up soil, they soak up water and reduce flooding, and they capture and filter harmful components of fertilizer before they reach the water supply.
Asked if the Grand Prairie Friends’ strategy of purchasing and restoring land along the river is effective, Jackson nodded but said that the problem is much larger than people think. “It’s a drop in the bucket. We can’t fix the current system. It is fundamentally flawed. The immense nature of the problem is going to require immense change—transformative change. Yes, it is expensive to change, but not as expensive as cleaning up the mess.”
The Work Ahead
There has been deep interest over time in cleaning up the river. In 1993, the not-for-profit Embarras River Management Association partnered with other agencies to develop the initial Comprehensive Watershed Management Plan. This plan was renewed in 2011, and again just a few months ago.
These plans identified water quality targets and made recommendations on how to achieve them, but when the newest update of Illinois’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Report came out last year, the river’s water quality had actually gotten worse. “The [improvement] needle just hasn’t moved as much as we had hoped,” Spaniol said.
Spaniol hopes the new management plan spearheaded by Coles County will go further towards inspiring meaningful action. It recommends building additional wetlands, planting woodlands, establishing grassed waterways and terraces in farm fields, and providing grant opportunities to make these mitigations possible. Stakeholders like the Farm Bureau and other soil and water conservation districts along the river have already shown interest, and she hopes other districts in the watershed will be inspired to write their own plans and get funding to implement conservation practices.
In the meantime, Grand Prairie Friends continues its restoration work. Their most recent property acquisition, the 80-acre Edna Edwards Burnett preserve near Villa Grove in Douglas County, was added just this year. “This is really the biggest bang for our buck (if we can create corridors), and doubly exciting if it is along river waterways.” Livesay stressed, “We are not done here, We have work to do.”
Back at the Coles County Water and Soil Conservation District, Spaniol agrees land restoration helps on the local level, but for her, revising farming practices to improve soil quality will still produce the biggest improvement for people downstream. “The healthier the soil, the less likely it is to erode and the more water it can hold. The more water it holds, the less likely it is to run off into the river.” Spaniol admits that the task is daunting, especially given that the Embarras is one of the largest watersheds in Illinois, yet she feels confident that the current coalition of partners—including the Farm Bureau, the University of Illinois Extension, other soil and water conservation districts, and, most importantly, elected officials and the voters in their districts—will finally make progress towards cleaning up the river. “I was born and raised in Coles County. . . . I want to see water quality stabilize or improve so the next generation can use the river for drinking water, for recreation, and so all the river’s benefits will be available to everyone.”
A longtime resident of central Illinois, Brenda Koenig is a writer, musician, and outdoor enthusiast. When not in her kayak or playing the fiddle, she is a research information specialist at the University of Illinois.
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