Restoring wetlands, preserving our water supply

Joe Roth, director of restoration programs and special funds at Openlands, a regional conservation organization, manages a 200-acre wetlands restoration project at the Hadley Valley Preserve in the Forest Preserve District of Will County. / Photo by Emily Cikanek

By Tina Seaman

Ever since his childhood days visiting his grandparents in rural Wisconsin, Joe Roth has been a dedicated water steward. Growing up in an industrial neighborhood in Chicago, Joe relished escaping the city to spend time outdoors in open spaces, rivers, and streams – and those early experiences cultivated a profound appreciation for water. Today, Joe lives in Will County, and he has been preserving wetlands for 18 years.

“Water is everything,” says Joe. “It’s fundamental to sustaining our growing population, our economy, and the ecosystems we rely upon.”

Joe would know. As the director of restoration programs and special funds at Openlands, a regional conservation organization, he manages a 200-acre wetlands restoration project at the Hadley Valley Preserve in the Forest Preserve District of Will County. From an upland lookout point, we scan the panoramic view of the 650-acre preserve and beyond to the rooftops of Joliet, population 152,000 – most of whom probably don’t realize that the rain running off their driveways and sidewalks quickly becomes the same water many of their neighbors use to brush their teeth and take a shower.

The Hadley Valley Preserve and its wetlands are above, but connected to, shallow aquifers tapped by many private wells in and around Joliet.  More significantly, shallow aquifers provide the public water supply for smaller communities on all sides of Joliet – Crest Hill, Lockport, Minooka, and Romeoville.  If the ground is sufficiently permeable, rainfall can seep down to refill shallow aquifers, but the process works in reverse, too.  The more water you pump, the more you risk reducing water levels in nearby wetlands and streams. Wetlands also help filter pollutants, such as road salt and fertilizer, from the water that’s flowing down into a future generation’s water supply.

With the beautiful preserve as our backdrop, Joe explains the importance of taking a holistic approach to restoration, one that takes into account the connections between the surrounding landscape, ecology, water sources, and human activities. Joe first assesses how the land is used throughout the watershed area to anticipate how the sustainability of the wetlands, and ultimately the water supply, will be impacted. Joe explains that development and agricultural practices can prevent natural drainage, or filtration, of rainwater into the underground water table.

For instance, impervious surfaces in the area – such as roads, rooftops, sidewalks, and parking lots – will cause rainfall from neighboring properties to either drain to the sewer or run off over land rapidly instead of allowing it to percolate slowly into the ground. Not surprisingly, this often leads to flooding. Fortunately, wetlands can help manage the stormwater runoff by storing it, filtering it, and recharging some of it into the groundwater supply. Therefore, surrounding land use is critical to keep in mind, Joe explains, because the main goals of wetlands restoration are to decrease flooding, filter out pollutants, and support a stable, high quality water supply – which are essential to the daily lives of nearby residents.

Joe stresses that plants and animals living in wetlands systems also provide many benefits, including cleaner air and water. Preserving the biodiversity of these species helps us and them: Indicator species, like the old “canary in the coal mine,” help determine the health of a wetlands system and its surrounding watershed. He notes that an increase or decrease in these indicator species, such as the green bulrush, informs decisions about restoration efforts.  Sustainable wetlands restoration provides habitat for a wide diversity of the plant and animal life in these areas, but also a natural process for cleaning and storing water that reduces energy costs and hard infrastructure demands.

There is no denying the large-scale impact of the Hadley Valley Preserve restoration, but Joe knows much work remains to ensure future generations of Illinois residents have a safe, abundant water supply. As a father he is dedicated to this cause. He wants his son to have clean water to drink and pristine lakes and streams to swim and fish, like he’s always had.  That’s why Joe lives his belief in “the power of one” – the idea that everyone, young and old, can be a steward, and that our collective efforts can achieve great rewards.

WOWW factors

90 % wetlands lost

Illinois has lost all but 10% of its original wetlands acreage due to land development.


Illinois ranks second-to-last in the nation in percentage of native vegetation remaining.

9 to 10 %

Percentage of northeastern Illinois’ population that relies on shallow aquifers as their water source.

407 %

Increase in chloride concentration in Will County shallow groundwater, from 1950 to 2005.  Road salt and stormwater runoff are major sources of salt contamination, which includes chloride. (Editorial note: The Dec. 7, 2010 WOWW e-newsletter included a typographical error here.  Chloride, rather than chlorine, concentrations have increased.  Apologies for the error, which has been amended)

Conservation tips

  • Let it sink in. Reduce the amount of impervious surfaces on your property, such as asphalt and concrete driveways and sidewalks, by using permeable pavers instead.
  • Plant native plants. Most prairie and wetland plants, as well as native wildflowers, have deep root systems that absorb water and reduce stormwater runoff.
  • Wash wisely. You’ll use about 40% less water if you launder your clothes in a high-efficiency washer.
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One Response to Restoring wetlands, preserving our water supply

  1. This comment came in via e-mail. It’s spot on. As always, responsible management and maintenance makes the difference between doing something and doing something right.

    “No one could disagree with the fact that the use of native plants for ground cover and landscaping has many positive attributes. Nevertheless, it is a reality that such plantings can grow to heights that conflict with the property maintenance codes of many jurisdictions. Consequently, neighbors can and do complain about such situations, particularly when the native plantings are not contained within an area which includes a setback distance from the neighbor’s property line that is covered by a strip of turf grass. U. S. EPA guideline manuals on this topic advise those who choose to use native plantings to 1) check with local code enforcement personnel PRIOR to installing native plantings in order to determine the requirements of applicable ordinances and 2) include a turf-covered set back area along the side and rear property lines. So…I am suggesting that, should you decide to reiterate this particular “Conservation Tip” at some future time , it would be a good idea to include in the text of the “Tip” the two provisos enumerated above.”

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