Lincoln Park’s North Pond, constructed in the mid-1880s, has slowly been filled with sediment runoff — making it only a few feet deep in some places. But thanks to fundraising efforts, there will soon be more water in the pond, along with other improvements.
The Lincoln Park Conservancy raised more than $7 million to restore the pond, and work began last week and is scheduled to continue into fall.
Doug Widener, executive director of the Lincoln Park Conservancy, recently told WBEZ’s Reset that the project will help improve the pond’s water quality and restore the habitat for more than 250 migratory bird species, amphibians and insects.
“We’ll be dredging the pond to deepen it to allow for oxygen turnover and lots of great habitat, oxygen for aquatic species, softening the slope of the shoreline to reduce erosion and runoff, and planting that shoreline with emergent plants to add new habitat types for birds, insects and aquatic species,” Widener said.
Because North Pond was constructed so long ago and gets so many visitors, it needs maintenance, said Lauren Umek, an urban ecologist and project manager for the Chicago Park District.
The pond needs to be refilled with city water because it does not have any inlets or outlets, Umek said.
“This restoration will help that,” she added. “One of the elements of that is pitting in sort of an on-and-off valve to the water, so if it ever does get low enough that we need to add water, we can do that. […] One of the other cool elements is adding underdrain to other areas in the parks.”
Chicago Park District employees will be able to capture some of the stormwater as it falls on the parkland and redirect it, rather than sending the water to the city’s sewers. Redirecting it is especially helpful because rainwater is better for aquatic life than tap water, Umek said.
Officials hope improving the quality of the North Pond as a habitat will attract even more species, including water-loving birds and insects.
Most of the work that will be happening over the summer will involve dredging the pond to make it deeper and able to hold more water.
“Then, as we get towards the fall, that’s when we will start putting in some of those new plants,” Umek said. “Once sort of the basic shape of the pond is together, then we’ll start reintroducing a lot of the native plants that will stabilize the soil. That will provide that extra habitat that will take, you know, a couple years to develop over time.”
Another aspect of the project involves lining the pond with a polymer, which will provide a natural barrier to prevent losing water to groundwater. The polymer will need to be reapplied every seven to 10 years, so park district officials said they will be planning for that during ongoing maintenance and stewardship of the park.
Widener and Umek said that work will contribute to mitigating the effects of climate change over the years.
For example, adding more native plants and trees will help absorb carbon.
“We will see the natural areas throughout Lincoln Park, all part of doing this on a micro scale,” Widener said. “As we see more trees being added to the restoration and after that helping to advance carbon or climate mitigation strategies.”
In addition to trees, herbaceous plants have deep roots that can capture and retain a lot of water and carbon.
Umek said climate change models predict 10% more precipitation for Illinois — but that does not mean there will be 10% more water every time it rains or that there will be 10% more storms in a given year.
“The way that seems to be coming is more sort of heavy rainstorms and then periods of drought,” Umek said. “So sort of being able to capture that water again and direct it to North Pond is good for us in general, but also for the city.”
Though the ecosystem components of the Lincoln Park Conservancy’s plan have funding, there are other aspects that have been designed and are shovel-ready — but do not have funding yet. Boardwalks and pier improvements would improve people’s ability to interact with the North Pond and its ecosystem.
“We’re ready to go for those when we have the funding,” Umek said.
Officials expect the ecosystem improvement project to be done by the end of fall, though people will still be able to visit the pond during construction.
Visitors can expect to see fences installed and preparations for the grading and dredging work that will happen over the summer.
Conservancy officials said they have walked the site with local groups — such as the Chicago Ornithological Society and Chicago Audubon Society — to look for bird nesting sites and try to minimize the project’s impact on habitats.
They are also working with the park district and Illinois Department of Natural Resources regarding turtles and other sensitive species during the project.
Bianca Cseke is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow her @biancacseke1.