Clever Apes: Un-ditching the creek

August 12, 2010

About three years ago, Will County and the advocacy group Openlands teamed up to restore a little waterway just outside Joliet. It's called "Spring Creek," but by 2007 it might as well have been named "Straight Ditch." The stream had been straightened, and engineered to drain water from farm fields as quickly as possible. The restoration crew dug up old aerial photos from the 1930s, brought in excavators and bulldozers, and "re-meandered" the creek. They tried to recreate, as best they could, the original bends in the river.

This is kind of an act of faith (underpinned, though, by research): the hope was that undoing decades of utilitarian engineering would bring back not just the old look of the stream, but the old ecosystem. They reseeded native plants along the restored creek banks "¦ and then nature is supposed to take over. First come insects that eat the plants. Those insects "restock the grocery store" for native fish, as Openlands' Roger Klocek put it. Those fish return, carrying with them the hitchhiking larvae of native mussels such as the cylindrical papershell. Those mussels dig into the crud in the creek bed and, fingers crossed, live a happy, if sedentary life. So keeping track of those mussels is a good way to measure the success of the restoration project and the health of the waterway. But for all the technology in play in restoring an ecosystem, the mussel monitoring process is a little, um, rustic. Step 1: Get in the creek. Step 2: Feel around for mussels. Step 3: Count them. Openlands accomplishes this with a few staff members, a bunch of volunteers, and, in this case, one sodden radio reporter. Enjoy.

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