Chicago’s Calumet Region Gets A Restoration Boost

Powderhorn Lake
Wetland restoration efforts are about to make this portion of Powderhorn Lake on Chicago's Southeast Side even better. Provided by Great Lakes Audubon
Powderhorn Lake
Wetland restoration efforts are about to make this portion of Powderhorn Lake on Chicago's Southeast Side even better. Provided by Great Lakes Audubon

Chicago’s Calumet Region Gets A Restoration Boost

Efforts to restore historic wetlands on Chicago’s Southeast Side are getting a boost with a $1-million award from two national organizations. The money will allow two local entities — the Cook County Forest Preserves and Audubon Great Lakes — to reconnect the popular Lake Powderhorn with nearby, and much larger, Wolf Lake. Historically, the two lakes had been joined.

The idea is to install a water control system that would create deeper water to encourage native wetland plants, fish and birds. But it will also help control flooding in nearby neighborhoods. “Better controlling the flow of water in the Calumet is important for the benefit of wildlife and people,” said Ald. Susan Garza.

It’s a project the Forest Preserves has had an eye on for some time. Last year’s Calumet Wetland Action Plan discussed the dimensions of such an engineering feat. But the price tag for the necessary water control construction was too much for available funding sources. The $1-million award comes from the Great Lakes Commision and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Google Maps Powderhorn Lake to Wolf Lake
The new water control system will connect, in a fish friendly manner, the northern section of Powderhorn Lake to the larger Wolf Lake. Google Earth

One look at a map demonstrates that making a fish friendly connection between Powderhorn Lake and Wolf Lake will take some doing. There’s a road, railroad tracks and a good chunk of land in between.

Such water control structures are successfully working at nearby Indian Ridge Marsh, Big Marsh and Eggers Grove, with a restoration rebound to show for it, according to Audubon Great Lakes.

marsh
An example of the type of Hemi marsh the Cook County Forest Preserves hopes to install on the northern side of Powerhorn Lake. This is a Hemi marsh at Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. Provided by Wetlands Initiative

The organization began wetland monitoring of the region in 2015. With half a dozen partners, they now monitor 26 sites in the Calumet wetland complex.

Bradford Kasberg is Audubon Great Lakes’ wetland restoration manager.

He said after decades of decline, they are now seeing an increase of marsh birds in the Calumet region.

The new water control project could boost that even more. It will enable engineers to drop the depth of the northern section of Powderhorn Lake 18 inches to bring back a variety of plants native to a Hemi marsh. Hemi marshs are great breeding grounds for fish, and deeper waters could attract marsh birds like Least Bittern and Pied-billed Grebe that Kasberg said now probably just fly by.

Jerome McDonnell covers the environment and climate for WBEZ. You can follow him @JeromeMcDonnell.