Wings Over Wetlands

Flying over Chicago (in the more innocent pre-Sept. 11 years) and watching the majestic skyline emerge directly from the blue-green edge of Lake Michigan is absolutely breathtaking. 

Despite being fortunate enough to call this city my home for the past 15 years, I still eagerly look out the window, even though the planes now take a slightly different route upon their descent. If you have an opportunity to fly into Chicago, do attempt to pull your eyes away from the impressive skyline and take notice of the astounding amount of green parks and forest preserves scattered in between the urban jungle as far as the eye can see.

Densely populated areas such as Chicago rarely have the space to devote much land to natural landscapes. But such landscapes, wetlands specifically, are vital to the health of wildlife and humans. They keep river levels normal, purify surface water and recharge groundwater sources. 

Wetlands also play a key role in flood prevention. A 1-acre wetland typically can store about 1 million gal of water, though the degree of flood control depends on many factors, such as the type of wetland and soil permeability, according to the Gulf Restoration Network.

Unfortunately, scientists estimate that the continental U.S. has lost approximately half of its wetland acreage. Many wetlands have been drained and filled to open land for farming, housing and city development. Unlike other natural treasures, such as beautiful mountains and rivers, wetlands tend to be viewed as mosquito breeding grounds, or grassy ditches at best. 

My team and I recently visited a wetlands restoration site on the North Side of Chicago, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ recommended plan will restore the landscape of Eugene Field Park to as close to pre-settlement conditions as possible. This $1.5-million project will naturalize the banks of the site along the Chicago River to reconnect the floodplain and restore the site’s native landscape.

This project is located in an area of the city frequently plagued by floods, resulting in street closures and ruined basements. While visiting the site, a local resident curious about our presence there shared his frustrations about the project. He felt that the city razed a perfectly good playground beloved by the neighborhood kids and turned it into the aforementioned grassy ditch. 

Needless to say, he was not too amused by our excitement for the project. But his reaction was excusable. Public education about the importance of wetlands restoration initiatives is not always the best. Many times, wetlands restoration projects such as the one at Eugene Field Park offer nothing more than a half-vandalized project sign stuck to chain-link fencing, leaving the public frustrated over the loss of their playground. 

Nevertheless, efforts are underway in the Great Lakes region as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which includes “bringing wetlands and other habitat back to life, and the first-ever comprehensive assessment of the entire 530,000 acres of Great Lakes coastal wetlands for the purpose of strategically targeting restoration and protection efforts in a science-based manner.”

These past few months the views from the skies over Chicago have been washed out and snowy, but I am happy to know that we are making efforts to protect and restore these invaluable, natural green filters.

Neda Simeonova is editorial director of Water & Wastes Digest. Simeonova can be reached at nsimeonova@sgcmail.com or 847.391.1011.

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