The half million acre Cache River Watershed, with its wooded hills and cypress swamps, looks more like Louisiana than Illinois. Its diversity of landforms and biota result from the intersection of four major physiographic regions in southern Illinois. Making up only 1.5 percent of the land area in Illinois, the Cache basin harbors 11.5 percent of the State’s high quality floodplain forests, 23 percent of its remaining high-quality barrens habitat, and 91 percent of the State’s high-quality swamp/wetland communities. The area shelters 113 State threatened or endangered species and 7 federally threatened or endangered species. The Cache River Wetlands are home to some of the oldest living trees east of the Mississippi River, include 3 National Natural Landmarks, and have been designated a “Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.”
The lands and waters of the Cache River Watershed are important parts of Illinois’ natural heritage. But over the last 100 years, the basin has been affected by widespread hydrological alterations and land clearing. The Post Creek cutoff, completed in 1916, was especially damaging to the wetlands because it diverted the upper segment of the Cache River directly into the Ohio River and isolated 40 miles of the shallow lower channel.
After WWII, forest in southern Illinois began to disappear at an alarming rate. In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of acres of floodplain forest were cleared, drained and converted to agriculture. By the 1980s, it became clear that the Cache River Wetlands were in a critical condition. Natural and agricultural lands began to flood more often. Silt from cleared land and unstable stream channels choked springs and natural drainage paths, and sedimentation rates in the Lower Cache were as high as 24 inches per year. Natural ponds that had held water for a long as local residents could remember were going dry, resulting in large-scale fish kills. The thousands of migratory waterfowl that had always used the Cache wetlands as rest stops were disappearing as their stopover sites were converted to dry fields. Everyone began to realize something was wrong with the Cache.
For additional detail on the history of the Cache see BLOG posts.
Vision for the Future
The Joint Venture Partnership’s vision of a restored Cache River Wetlands includes a functional, healthy wetland ecosystem that supports plants, animals, and natural communities similar to those which historical occurred in the wetlands. It is also a vision of a future where residents live, work, and play and where a healthy landscape sustains thriving communities.