The Cache: A Disconnected River

cypress tree in buttonland swamp
Some of the oldest living trees east of the Mississippi are found in the Cache River Watershed.

At the point where the Post Creek Cutoff diverted the Cache directly south into the Ohio River, a floodgate was installed. When water levels were high enough, the floodgates were opened and water flow from the upper Cache continued west through the Lower Cache Channel. However, the Cutoff continued to deepen and widen until eventually no water flowed into the Lower Cache channel from the Upper Cache. Today, the water in the eastern half of the Lower Cache actually flows east (upstream) and into the incised Cutoff ditch.

The flow from the Upper Cache, once the source of water for Buttonland Swamp, kept the channel in the swamp open. As late as the 1960s Long Reach in the Lower Cache still had a depth of eight feet, but because Upper Cache water ceased flowing through Buttonland Swamp, more sediment deposited into the swamp, further impeding drainage.

cypress tree in buttonland swamp
Sediment from drainage ditches and straightened creeks cause up to a foot of sediment per year during the 1970s and 1980s.

Two tributaries into the Lower Cache, Cypress Creek and Big Creek, were also victims of man’s attempt to make this environment more livable—however, land clearing and drainage efforts exacerbated the problem by increasing soil erosion and sediment transport. During the 1970s and 1980s, for example, nearly a foot of sediment was deposited in some parts of the Lower Cache each year.

fishermen in the cache
Fishing in the Cache was a way of life for people living in the watershed.

Fishing had been an important way of life on the Cache, but according to local residents the fishery was eliminated after the local drainage district dredged the Lower Cache in 1972 in order to speed drainage.  Just like the river, a divide was forming between those who saw the river and its associated wetlands as a hindrance to progress, and those that understood the importance of restoring and maintaining the natural wetlands ecosystem.

In 1978 Illinois completed the Natural Areas Inventory—several areas within the Cache River Watershed were included in that inventory. In 1979 citizens organized to save the Cache and formed one of the first citizen groups in Illinois, Citizens Committee to Save the Cache. This attention sparked increased interest in the scientific community and researchers began serious documentation of the region.

big tree survey in the cache
John White records 12 record setting trees in the Cache watershed.

In 1980 one researcher, ecologist John White, documented the big trees in the Cache of which 12 set state records; and he helped get the Lower Cache River Swamp designated as a National Natural Landmark.


In 1984 The Nature Conservancy completed a preservation plan and by 1988 citizens began supporting an effort to create a refuge. Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge and Cache River State Natural Area were formed in 1990. The following year the Cache River Wetlands Joint Venture Partnership (JVP) formed between Ducks Unlimited, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, and US Fish and Wildlife Service.

people working together
People came together to create the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge and the Cache River Wetlands.

Working together, the JVP and citizens created the Cache River Watershed Plan, which formed the foundation for C2000 project work to restore habitat, reduce sedimentation, and restore connectivity of the disconnected river. The next blog will take a closer look at these projects and accomplishments.

Resource Plan for the Cache River Watershed, Cache River Watershed Resource Planning Committee, December 1995
Cache River Watershed: Its People and Their Wetlands (PowerPoint), Tracy Boutelle Fidler, 2011.


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