Cleanup plan will restore Illinois River.

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Cleanup plan will restore Illinois River.

By Tim Renken, St. Louis Post Dispatch.

10/11/2001

It's hard to forget the image of the Illinois River as a waterway where the carp and catfish tasted so bad that even the maggots gagged. Other kinds of fish? Forget it.

That image is left over from a generation ago when the Illinois was virtually a sewer for every town and farm along the way.

The water pollution laws of the 1970s drastically reduced industrial and municipal pollution, but the river still carries a heavy load of sediment. Siltation has claimed many backwater areas; they barely support crayfish anymore. And all of the oxbows, side-channels and sloughs are much shallower than they once were.In most areas the river has lost 70-90 percent of the depth it had at the turn of the century.

But a program is under way to further clean up Illinois' namesake river by reducing silt and by cleaning out ruined areas of backwater. The goal of a combined effort by the state and federal governments is to make the entire Illinois River, including its lower reaches just north of St. Louis, clear, clean, deep and fishable again.

The progress on the upper river in the last 30 years is illustrated in an article by Gary Thomas in the May issue of Outdoor Illinois, the magazine of the Department of Natural Resources.

Mike Cochran of the DNR's Division of Fisheries told Thomas that in the early 1970s about the only fish in the Illinois were carp and shiners, "and they weren't healthy." A fishing tournament on the river in those days would have been a sad joke.

This spring, however, The Masters Walleye Circuit held a large tournament on the Illinois at Spring Valley. In the competition, walleye experts from all over the country caught 1,395 walleye and sauger with a total weight of 3,355.85 pounds. Walleye and sauger don't tolerate much pollution. The average weight was 2.41 pounds, good for sauger. The biggest fish weighed 4.85 pounds.

The result was no fluke. The MWC has held a tournament at Spring Valley since 1994, and the total poundage was less than 1,000 pounds only once, in 1998 when the river was in flood in March.

Cochran said the upper river, including natural pools at Peoria, contains bass, crappie, sunfish, catfish and white bass. In the river above Peoria, smallmouth predominate. Below Peoria, largemouth predominate.

The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) have held three Superstars bass tournaments on the Illinois at Peoria. The Illinois Valley Bassmasters and the Peoria Bassmasters hold at least two tournaments a year on the Illinois out of Peoria and Lacon. Catches are as good as those on nearby lakes in the summer. On Aug. 12 the Jersey County BASS Anglers held a tournament out of Grafton.

Like the Mississippi, the best fishing for sauger and walleye on the Illinois is below the dams, notably below Peoria and LaGrange.

Last year the state and the Corps of Engineers announced studies that will lead to the restoration of the Illinois river. Congress authorized $100 million for the work. The Illinois Rivers 2020 Plan, which covers all of the rivers in the Illinois basin, is expected to take 20 years and cost $2.5 billion.

Not only will the silt entering the river be reduced, dredging will restore both channel and backwaters. Last year Caterpillar and Kress Corporation began work on a new dredge they hope to have available soon.

Before it was settled, the Illinois River Valley was a wildlife paradise comparable to any in the world. That won't happen again, not with some 10 million acres of prime farmland in the basin, but the cleanup will restore some of the luster.


SPORTSReporter Tim Renken: E-mail: Trenken@post-dispatch.com Phone: 314-849-4239
 

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