July 03, 2013

Lower Cache River water flow research underway

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A team of researchers and students from Southern Illinois University Carbondale is leading an effort to examine the potential benefits of restoring water flow to the Lower Cache River, which has been cut off from its headwaters for decades.

Without water flow, the river has basically become a linear swamp, incapable of maintaining the abundance and diversity of life that once supported an entire industry based on fisheries and outdoor recreation.  The Cache River holds a special place in the hearts of many Southern Illinois residents. However, the fate of the river has drawn eyes from much further away -- in part because of the University’s role in providing scientific information to assist the area’s resource managers.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources provides most funding for the reconnection simulation project, along with matching contributions from Nature Conservancy Illinois and Little River Research and Design in Carbondale.  The IDNR, along with Ducks Unlimited, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Big Creek Drainage Commission, and SIU Carbondale, have all contributed to the project.

That partnership is an important component of the research, and another reason for the outside interest in the project.

Matt Whiles, professor of zoology at SIU Carbondale and director of the University’s Center for Ecology, said the Cache River project has potential to become a model for other river restoration projects worldwide.  He noted that river restoration experts and other ecologists have shown considerable interest in Cache River-related research projects as presented by various graduate students and SIU Carbondale faculty at professional and academic conferences.

“River restoration is becoming more common, but most restoration attempts are not guided by science and don’t involve collaborations between researchers and resource managers,” he said. “This project is based on comprehensive ecological studies.  We have a nice example here, and that is why we’re getting some attention.”

This week, the team began pumping water from Bottomland Swamp to the Lower Cache at the rate of two to three cubic feet per second -- merely a trickle, but enough to simulate water flow.  

Whiles stressed the importance of student involvement in research associated with the project.  His current team includes recent alumni as well as numerous graduate and undergraduate students.  Two of the undergraduate students on the current research team are participating in the first year of a Research Experience for Undergraduates program though SIU Carbondale’s Center for Ecology.  This National Science Foundation award brings accomplished students to SIU Carbondale from around the country to work with researchers in the Center for Ecology. 

Tracy Boutelle Fidler, who heads Shawnee Resource Conservation and Development’s Cache River Project, pointed out that restoring the Cache River and its wetlands have local support. Part of the reason for that is the hope of river-based economic recovery -- namely, improved recreational fisheries and the tourism industries.

“Historically, the Cache River has played an important role in the local economy,” she said.  “The real hey-day for fisheries was in the 1950s and 1960s.  The productive fisheries supported fishing cabins and restaurants.  A whole industry depended on the river.  Most of the cabins are empty now. Basically, no water flow, no fisheries.”

The University’s role in providing a scientific model will hopefully bring more stakeholders to the table, leading to an informed decision-making and a model for success.  For more information about the Cache River State Natural Area, visit http://www.dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/parks/r5/cachervr.htm.