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Illinois River meeting examines sediment, tourism
Illinois Correspondent

PEORIA, Ill. — The Illinois River: Progress and Promise was the theme for the 10th biennial Governor’s Conference on the Management of the Illinois River System, Oct. 4-6 in Peoria and attended by around 350.

Those attending heard from several guest speakers, took a bus trip along the Illinois River to learn more about the commerce it provides, and saw presentations on watershed planning, sediment reuse, wetland restoration, and other topics important to river users during the three-day event.

The conference brought together concerned citizens, agricultural, conservation, and environmental organizations, along with industry and government representatives, educators, and resource management specialists.

“Without a doubt, the Illinois River has a tremendous impact on the lives of everyone living within its watershed,” said Bob Frazee, a University of Illinois extension educator, who served as the conference’s co-chair. “This conference helps to examine the problems, explore solutions, and report on progress associated with many local, state, and federal initiatives from agencies and organizations.”

Frazee said that as the state’s most important inland water resource, the Illinois River’s importance to agriculture should not be underestimated.

“If Illinois farmers would lose the river as a source for exporting their corn and soybean crops, they would lose anywhere from 10 to 25 cents a bushel,” Frazee said. “There is increasing concern by scientists and researchers that the Illinois River is filling at an alarming rate. Most of the backwater lakes from Hennepin to Meredosia are anywhere from 85 to 98-percent filled in with sediment.”

The possibility of using Illinois River sediment to fortify fragile wetlands along the Gulf Coast in order to stabilize flood-prone areas was brought up during the conference, held at the Holiday Inn City Center downtown.

Illinois Lt. Governor Pat Quinn, one of the conference’s speakers, said “Louisiana needs topsoil, and we have it in the form of sediment from the Illinois River.”

“The US Army Corps of Engineers has dredging crews working 365 days a year to just remove the sediment in deltas at the mouths of the many creeks and rivers entering the Illinois River,” Frazee said.

The conference was important to farmers, Frazee said, because the Illinois River carries more volumes of barge commerce than the upper Mississippi River north of St. Louis. Around 600 million bushels of corn are transported each year from Illinois, with 80 percent being shipped by barge via the Mississippi and Illinois River systems. Farmers also rely on the river for many of their inputs, including fertilizer, limestone, anhydrous ammonia, fuel, building materials and equipment.

Quinn also expressed enthusiasm for the ways various state agencies have worked together to support and implement environmental issues relating to the river at a council session Oct. 4.

Len Bahr, director of the Louisiana Governor’s Applied Coastal Science Program, said his state is in dire need to rebuild its fragile shorelines. Bahr wanted to learn more about Quinn’s “mud-to-parks” sediment removal project, which transported Peoria’s excess river sediment to Chicago for use as topsoil for a new park.

Attendees also heard from experts concerned with the rising number of invasive Asian carp in the Illinois River, and measures being taken to prevent them from reaching Lake Michigan. Speakers also discussed expansion of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and challenges facing the Farm Services Agency.

Other topics included the recent designation of roads along the Illinois River valley as a scenic byway, and the economic benefits of nature-based tourism.

More than 60 groups were involved with the conference as co-sponsors.

“The river is certainly our most vital inland water resource,” Frazee said. “Unfortunately, it is also one of our state’s most threatened waterways due to increasing problems associated with soil erosion and sedimentation.”