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Eggers Grove, water and restoration: Fiddling with hydrology on the wild Southeast Side

A hydrologic restoration project should remake Eggers Marsh, one of many wild changes coming on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

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A crane stands waiting to work on a hydrologic restoration project at Eggers Grove on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
Dale Bowman

A crane sat idle. Pipe was piled neatly nearby.

There’s too much water after the record rains in May to get the hydrologic restoration project at Eggers Grove fully going. Dig a little and water fills in.

I find irony in too much water for a hydrologic restoration project.

``Everything is ready to go, 100 percent, except the water,’’ said Chip O’Leary, deputy director of resource management for the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

Eventually, our weather will settle into something more normal (I think) and construction will begin in earnest.

I find the complex of wild areas, loosely connected and related, around Chicago’s Southeast Side entrancing. From Eggers Grove to the Nike Site to William W. Powers State Recreation Area (Wolf Lake) to Powderhorn Lake to Big Marsh to Lake Calumet/the Calumet system, it is wild, but also intensely human-impacted.

It’s the Petri dish of modern urban wilds.

Throw in the possibility of the Chicago casino coming to the area and the Petri dish could get even wilder. (See David Roeder and Fran Spielman’s story in Wednesday’s Sun-Times.)

Eggers Grove is a perfect example. The 241-acre site for the FPCC on the far Southeast Side is framed by 112th on the north, the Indiana line on the east and the western edge includes the heavily used Burnham Greenway. Eggers Marsh, 40 acres give or take, is the main feature in the southeast corner.

Originally, Eggers Marsh drained into Wolf Lake, but when the Nike Site came, the drainage was reversed to go north under 112th. Reversing drainage in Chicago? Who knew? Eventually, sediment and other issues impacted drainage and the marsh is now more of a lake.

Monday, I toured the beginning of the work with O’Leary, John Legge, Chicago conservation director for The cq Nature Conservancy and Becky Collings, senior ecologist for FPCC. In 2011, a hydrological study was done. From that, through various fundings, grew the hydrological restoration project. It took cooperation among many governmental and non-governmental groups.

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Credit: Dale Bowman Chip O’Leary (left), John Legge and Becky Collings discuss the hydrologic restoration project at Eggers Grove on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
Dale Bowman

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through such groups as Sustain Our Great Lakes. Legge was lead writer on the SOGL grant. Funding and support also came from FPCC, Audubon Great Lakes, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Program and the Field Museum.

It took an alphabet soup to get the funding. Now the weather needs to settle.

When water finally allows, the work will begin the lower end at the discharge point at 112th, then dig back toward the marsh. There will be water control structures, similar to the small kind used agriculturally, so water levels can be adjusted as needed.

Phragmites had become a nearly insurmountable problem. I remember it being nearly impossible to view the marsh because of them. Phragmites were heavily attacked in 2012 and have been handled annually since. It brought a remarkable change to the shoreline.

``The underlying problem was hydrology,’’ Collings said.

The last time the marsh was really pulled down was in 2005.

``When we draw down, we are hoping to see a response from the seed bank,’’ Collings said. ``But we have contingency plans.’’

That includes plants from the many nearby sites and growing help from the Chicago Botanic Garden.

``Get rid of the invasives and get some sunlight in and it is pretty cool,’’ O’Leary said.

That’s the hope.

A draw down of Eggers Marsh will allow the suspended dirt to fall down and allow more sunlight in, then there will be more algae and more oxygen. And everything builds from there.

Focal species, such as yellow-headed blackbird (not seen since 2012) are indicative of the degradation of the marsh. Black-crowned night-herons are diminishing in number. There used to be so many that they would seem to take turns flying into and out of northwest Indiana, O’Leary said.

Audubon Great Lakes, using call-back tapes, did a nesting survey in 2018 that found American coot dominated, but there was also marsh wren, pied-billed grebe, sora, black-crowned night-heron, blue-winged teal, swamp sparrow, Virginia rail, least bittern and common gallinule.

Collings pulled out some cool images, including an aerial one from the 1930s and a series of Google images from 1998 to present that showed the dramatic changes in Eggers Marsh.

As flat as Eggers seems, there are actually three ridges in it, she said, basically following the lake.

As a biker on the Burnham Greenway passed, she asked, ``Are they cleaning the graffiti?’’

Human impact has so many levels.

At the marsh, two great egrets lifted off as we stared northeast. The west shore is a dune. Then a black-crowned night-heron flew off on an edge.

``Maybe some day, we will find a way back to [Wolf Lake],’’ O’Leary said.

Resized/Sun-Times
Eggers Marsh as it looked Monday. When the hydrologic restoration is completed, there will be more varied mix of shore and water areas.
Dale Bowman