A Publication of WTVP

In his song “The Captain and The Kid,” Jimmy Buffett shares a real-life story of him and his grandfather enjoying sailing and fishing out on the water. It captures the incredible closeness that comes from being with someone you love out on the beautiful water together.

When I was a boy, I fished with my father out on the waters of the Illinois River and the Peoria Lakes. I’ve fished, boated, sailed, hunted, played and swum in the waters off Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties. As a teenager, I swam entirely across the Illinois River, bank to bank, a half dozen times. I can testify it is very wide at the Ivy Club and very fast near the old Hiram Walker site. I’ve always loved the water, especially when I was with my dad. Wouldn’t you agree that this river is a wonderful treasure and a precious gift from God that is ours to preserve and protect as we have, and can apply, the wisdom to do so?

“There is nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don’t know.” And so, this quotation from Ambrose Bierce is, unfortunately, spot-on with regard to the Peoria-Pekin Area Lakes and the Illinois River basin. We look out and see a beautiful expanse of glistening water as far as the eye can see and feel good. But just below the surface lurks a dangerous truth of which far too many of us are unaware. Outside of the narrow barge channel maintained by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and mostly by the constant dredging by barge engines, the remainder of this vast expanse of beautiful water is much more horizontal than vertical. The illusion to the human mind is that if it is that wide, it certainly must be deep. While there was a time in history when deep water, or at least pockets of deep water, were more frequent, the river’s condition today in normal pool is far from deep, with far too many locations with less than two feet from water level to sediment.

The Heartland Water Resources Council of Central Illinois (HWRC) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization made up of constituent interests including both the public and private sectors—municipal and county government, business, education, organizations and individuals, among others. The mission of the HWRC is to preserve, protect and restore (our slogan: “At the Heart of Saving”) the Peoria-Pekin Area Lakes and the Illinois River basin. With increasing sediment a primary threat to our mission, the HWRC has supported efforts both to reduce the sediment entering the water and increase sediment removal from the water. To accomplish this, the HWRC has built partnerships with The Nature Conservancy and the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission to form the Peoria Lakes Basin Alliance; with the State of Illinois through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), University of Illinois, and Illinois state scientists; and with the federal government through the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

We’ve worked to support the “Mud-to-Parks” initiative whereby our sediment has been shipped to a Chicagoland brownfield site to create a beautiful green park for children. We’ve connected the need of a Tazewell County landfill to have sediment partially used in the capping solution. We’re supported using our sediment in New Orleans to help build back the land necessary to protect the city if reasonable transportation methods to minimize costs can be identified to accommodate the initiative. We’ve called for our sediment to be used by the Illinois Department of Transportation with highway construction. When some within the State of Illinois pointed to objections of potential sediment contamination concern, we pointed to the Mud-to-Parks program and asked, “If it’s safe enough for our children to play on, why would it not be safe enough for cars to drive upon?” To date, no reasonable, common-sense answer has been provided, but we’re still waiting for official word from the State of Illinois. In fact, I personally shared this concern with both Governor Quinn and IDNR Director Marc Miller, with Congressman Schock present at the press conference to announce the contract signing for the Island Project.

Speaking of the island, we’ve fully supported this project, which is just now starting to fill in some of the northern corner with river sediment. Some local folks have objected to the island, indicating they support the other initiatives identified but don’t want to see us “lose” more of our precious water by building an island. But we’re losing our precious water much more without the island than with it. The purpose will be to remove sediment, build the island, create habitat on the island for birds and animals, create deep-water habitat near the island for increased quantities and species of fish, and sustain the island to minimize re-sedimentation. Folks who want to remove sediment without islands are like folks who want to fly without airplanes; they inadvertently become their own obstacle to success.

Will one island do the job? It will help, but it won’t fix the problem alone. That’s why HWRC has called to implement the secondary channel concept identified originally by the Illinois scientists. This would entail building a string of islands which would create a secondary channel for recreational and sporting enthusiasts and many others to enjoy the benefits while remaining outside the barge channel and the inherent safety concerns that exist while recreating within close proximity to commercial barge traffic. Far too often, we read about “accidents” between the two and to the extent we can eliminate the risk, we all win. Safety must always remain our top priority.

My father taught me that “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” So why not commercialize the removal of sediment and meet the nation’s growing topsoil demand by combining our rich Illinois River-Peoria-Pekin Area Lake sediment with bio-solids and marketing the resulting new product? Consequently, HWRC is working with some interested private-sector companies who could engage this business. There is so much sediment that it would be ineffective to select only one partial solution. We need to work on a multi-dimensional plan with parallel solution paths.

These are only some of the interesting initiatives currently under consideration but we need your help. If you have suggestions, solutions or contributions, or if you just want to be part of the community to help fix the problem, please call (309) 637-LAKE or email [email protected].

This is only a start, but preserving, protecting and restoring our beloved Peoria-Pekin Area Lakes and the Illinois River basin is a critical long-term project that we all need to support in every way we can. Although I lost my father in 2003, I still look forward to fishing out on our beautiful river and lakes with my son and someday, perhaps a grandson or granddaughter. We must work together to protect what is clearly the No. 1 natural resource that God has gifted central Illinois. iBi

Russ Crawford is president of the Heartland Water Resources Council of Central Illinois. More information is available at