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The Kishwaukee River

The Kishwaukee River is considered to be one of the highest quality streams in Illinois due to its relatively clean water and the diversity of life it supports. Designated an Illinois Resource Rich Area and a Biologically Significant Stream, the “Kish” watershed supports numerous threatened and endangered plant and animal species. Yet, its location, sandwiched between the spreading metropolitan regions of Rockford, IL and Chicago, make it increasingly vulnerable to numerous threats.

Originating near Woodstock in McHenry County, the Kishwaukee watershed, or basin, has an area of 1,250 square miles. The 63.4-mile Kishwaukee River corridor meanders gently across the post glacial landscape within a basin of what was a much larger river system created as glacial melt water rushed off over 13,000 years ago.

The Kishwaukee River watershed is open oak woodland and prairie country on low undulating land until traversing steeper topography in the northern parts of Boone and Winnebago counties. The North branch flows from Woodstock to Rockford where it joins the Rock River. The southern branch has its origin high upon the Cropsey Moraine, just north of Shabbona. It flows in a northeasterly direction until the village of Genoa where it turns left, flowing west-northwest.

One thousand seventy species of plants are found in the Kishwaukee River watershed. It is home to at least 28 plants and 30 animals listed as Illinois threatened or endangered and it supports a diversity of aquatic life: 59 species of fish, 26 species of mussels, and 14 species of large crustaceans. In 2010, Openlands, a Chicago-based conservation organization, released a report on a year-long comprehensive mussel study conducted at 18 sites on the Kishwaukee River.  In total, 16 species of live mussels have been documented (19 species, including dead shells), including three endangered species. Mussels are a very big deal in river conservation because they are among the best indicators of a waterway’s long-term health. When there is a pollution event, a change in water quality or an increase in sedimentation; the mussels are stuck there, and have to absorb it. A stream that has high-quality mussels, lots of different kinds (10 or more species), and good numbers of individuals, is considered to be relatively healthy.

Although the water quality of the Kishwaukee River is generally good, sections of it have recently been found to be contaminated with pollutants affecting the river’s ability to support natural plant and animal populations, and recreational uses. According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 Water Resource Assessment, 34.7 miles of the north branch and 5.81 miles of the south branch are designated as impaired. Sections totaling 56.49 miles are impaired due to PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls) and a total of 25.61 miles exceed levels of mercury, which results in consumption advisories for fish caught in those areas.

Dams, habitat loss, river and tributary erosion, and water pollution are scientifically and comprehensively addressed in the Strategic Plan for Habitat Conservation and Restoration in Kishwaukee River Watershed, developed by the Kishwaukee River Ecosystem Partnership in 2006.  Rapid urban growth and extensive construction, especially in the metropolitan areas of Woodstock, Belvidere and Rockford as primary threats to the health of the Kish.

Contaminated storm water run-off from extensive parking lots, roads and roof tops, and municipal sewage discharge, contribute to the degradation of the river. Agricultural erosion and chemicals have negative impacts in the Kishwaukee as well, since almost 70% of the land in the watershed is agricultural and nearly 90% is farmland in DeKalb County where the south branch originates. Erosion from construction sites and agriculture washes fine sediment into the Kishwaukee and its tributaries, smothering the habitat for mussels and for aquatic insects, which are the base of the river system’s food chain. Cropland practices, such as minimum tillage, grassed waterways, streamside filter strips and terraces, can minimize agricultural erosion which causes siltation. Right now the Kishwaukee presents a very unique opportunity to save an amazing resource. Because most of it is still in good shape, if we do all we can to protect its watershed, this river has a bright future.

Beyond best management practices such as siltation control and vegetated buffer strips, preserving the riparian corridors (native vegetation zones) along the banks of the Kishwaukee is the best way to protect the water and wildlife. Conservation agencies in McHenry, Boone, Winnebago and DeKalb counties have made acquiring and managing quality natural areas along the Kishwaukee a priority. Not only does the vegetated land along the river corridor store flood waters and filter run-off, it protects scarce prairie, woodland and wetland habitat for a multitude of species that keep the Kish vital.

Because much of the Kishwaukee River corridor remains a natural setting, it is very popular for paddling, floating and fishing. One of the greatest attractions for recreationalists is the unspoiled scenery and outstanding wildlife viewing opportunities for those who glide quietly along. In spring, the Kishwaukee River banks are blanketed with bluebells, lady’s slippers, trilli­ums and trout lilies. In summer the oaks, sycamores and silver maples line the river with deep green shade, and in fall provide one of the most colorful foliage displays in the region. Some of the outstanding birds seen on the Kishwaukee are great Blue Herons, Least Bitterns, Sandhill Cranes, Barred Owls, Wood Ducks and the state endangered osprey. Twelve am­phibian and 21 reptile species occur here, which means recreationalists are likely to sight frogs, toads, and a variety of turtles.

The Winnebago County Forest Preserve District has prioritized acquisition along the Kishwaukee and is working toward creating a continuous corridor of high quality habitat to protect the river and its entire ecosystem. Tom Hartley, Director of Land Acquisition for WCFPD, says the agency has focused on the Kishwaukee River area because that’s the part of the county where the most growth and development is occurring. Hartley says, “there is an urgency to protect and restore riverfront land to minimize the impacts of development. A continuous corridor protects the integrity of the stream, provides connected wildlife habitat and enables land and water recreation trails.”  Once the forest preserve district adds a new parcel to the Kishwaukee corridor, such as County Line Forest Preserve in 2010, it is restored with native trees and grasses to enhance habitat, filter debris and pollutants, provide nutrients, and reduce flooding. WCFPD has been actively acquiring land along the Kishwaukee River since 1978.