Category Archives: Cache

Posts related to the Cache River Watershed in Southern Illinois

Restoration in the Cache River Watershed

JVP logoAfter a century and a half of ditching, draining, over-logging, soil erosion, sedimentation and habitat loss in the Cache River watershed citizens and agencies formed the Joint Venture Partnership (JVP) and began the work of restoration.

As affirmation that the long road ahead to recovery was worth the effort the Cache River region was designated as a “Wetland of International Importance” at the 1996 Ramsar  Convention on Wetlands. Only 26 wetlands in the United States share this distinction.

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.

water retention pon

Water retention ponds, constructed in the Big Creek watershed, have helped to reduce sediment load into the Lower Cache River from over 12 inches a year to less than an inch a year.

To date, landowners have protected and restored 13,500 acres of wetlands through NRCS’ Wetland Reserve Program.  Agencies and organizations have acquired 35,000 acres, reforested 22,000 acres, and restored 9,000 acres of wetlands.

Using various forms of conservation practices, landowners have reduced soil loss on 31,500 acres and built 90 water retention structures in Big Creek watershed. Approximately 9,000 feet of river has been dredged to restore water flow.

riffle weir

Riffle weirs, man-made rock structures that mimic natural river riffles, slow the flow of water thereby reducing stream bank erosion.

Agencies have also built 48 riffle weirs to stop stream bank erosion and 13 gully plugs to prevent adjacent wetlands from being drained. The Upper Cache River bank has been stabilized with gabion baskets to stop severe erosion that was threatening Heron Pond.


Although much has been done over the past two decades to restore habitat and reduce sediment a very important piece of the restoration puzzle still needs to be put into place—Connectivity Restoration. Tracy Boutelle Fidler, Restoration Coordinator for the JVP explains, “The Cache, like other rivers, needs free-flowing water to be healthy. A gentle current brings oxygen and dissolved nutrients, while also moving pollutants out of the system. For the Cache and adjacent natural places to remain healthy for future generations, some amount of flow must be re-established between its upper and lower segments.”

The next Cache blog will take a look at a plan to restore connectivity that considers the conservation need alongside the public need – protection from floods.

Source: Cache River Watershed Joint Venture Partnership


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.

The Post Creek Cutoff Ditch Changes the Cache River Forever

post creek cutoff

Post Creek Cutoff was originally 30 feet wide and 10 feet deep.

In 1905, 250,000 acres in the Cache River watershed were described as wet and worthless for farming. The Cache River Drainage District was created in 1911 with specific purpose of construction the Post Creek Cutoff. By 1916 the 4.8 mile long Cutoff was completed, diverting the 60% of the Upper Cache due south of Belknap into the Ohio River. The fall was to be one foot per mile along the 30-foot wide by 10-foot deep ditch.

post creek cutoff

By 1974, the Cutoff was 200 feet wide and 64 feet deep near the Grand Chain bridge, appearing more like a canyon that a drainage ditch.

The steep gradient and non-meandering route instantly accelerated flows and began a process of severe erosion, which continues today. By 1974, the Cutoff was 200 feet wide and 64 feet deep near the Grand Chain bridge, appearing more like a canyon that a drainage ditch.

Simultaneously, a network of straight ditches and laterals were constructed through the Black Slough region. The Main Brothers Box and Lumber Company used these as float roads to get logs to the sawmill in Karnak. They also diverted part of the Cache River north of Karnak through Sawmill Ditch where logs were stored in a pond.

Following the completion of the Cutoff and miles of additional drainage ditches, thousands of acres of timberland were cut and cleared through the 1940s. Today most of the vast swamp/pond complex exists has huge farm fields, which are tiled with outlets into another ditch, called the Main Ditch and its tributaries.

Post Creek Cutoff causes Environmental Damage to the Eastern Half of the Cache Watershed

The increased water velocities through the Cutoff have resulted in headward gully migration, causing scoured channels and eroded banks 20 miles upstream. This phenomenon directly affected Heron Pond (a National Natural Landmark) when erosion incised the Cache adjacent to Heron Pond by only six feet. With swamp levels higher than the river and bank erosion eliminating the natural levees that once separated the swamps from the river, underground piping and open gullies threaten to drain Heron Pond and the other natural swamps along the Cache.

As the Post Creek Cutoff has deepened and widened, so have the many side streams and ditches that feed into it. The resulting lateral gullies, some over a mile long, extend into adjacent farm fields impeding access and loss of useable farmland.

The Cutoff has lowered the water table and caused the loss of natural springs. The changes in hydrology have caused changes in the composition of natural plant and animal communities. And, because of the loss of the natural flood retention capabilities of the Black Slough, some places downstream experience worse flooding now than in pre-settlement times.

Large silt deposits end up at the mouth of the Cutoff in the Ohio River. Annual dredging is required to keep the navigation channel deep enough for river traffic.

The next article will explore the impacts of the dividing the Cache into two rivers on the Lower Cache in the western half of the watershed.

Source: Resource Plan for the Cache River Watershed, Cache River Watershed Resource Planning Committee, December 1995

The age of ditching and draining and devastating damage to the ecosystem of the Cache River watershed

When the upper Cache River emerges from the Shawnee Hills it intersects a wide, relatively flat valley stretching from the Ohio River on the east to the Mississippi River on the west. The Cache intersects the Ohio River not far upstream from its junction with the Mississippi River. When early French explorers first encountered the mouth of the Cache it was jammed with logs and obscured from view. Thus, it was the named Cache, meaning hidden or stored in French.

Cache River Watershed

The Cache Valley, which is actually the ancient course of the Ohio River, receives water flowing into it from the Cache River and several other tributaries. During major flood events backwater from the Ohio at the mouth of the Cache River would actually flow eastward, or backward along its ancient course, 80 miles to rejoin the Ohio at the mouth of Bay Creek.

wetlands in winter

1807 Public Land Survey records defined the lower Cache basin as a “lake,” as a “pond,” as “inaccessible” and as having “water too deep to wade.” Section lines had to be surveyed on ice or not at all.

The 11,000-acre area between Bay Creek at the Ohio River and the Cache River, referred to as the Black Sough, was described in 1807 by Public Land Surveyors as a “lake,” as a “pond,” as “inaccessible” and as having  “water too deep to wade.” Section lines had to be surveyed on ice or not at all. The Cache valley downstream from the Black Slough was also described by terms such as swamp, lakes, ponds, and scatters.

This unique landmass at the junction of two of the word’s greatest rivers, with its mystifying, complex and crazy hydrology, was basically considered to be “inaccessible and drowned.” The only logical solution for accessing the valuable timber and conversion to farmland was to drain the massive wetlands.

By the 1870s sawmills began processing the plentiful timber for lumber, railroad ties, boxes and charcoal. Drainage and land-clearing efforts were beginning to bring bottomland under cultivation. But, the worst was yet to come. In 1905, A.H. Bell, Chief Engineer of the Cache River Drainage Commission explained that drainage of the “exceedingly crooked and winding…meanders” of the Cache could be increased significantly by digging a ditch straight into the Ohio.

The Post Creek cutoff was a great success at draining the land—but its effect on the ecology and hydrology of the watershed…not so much! (To be continued.)

[Historical reference credit: Cache River Area Assessment: Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Cache River Area, John White, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 1997]

Cache River Watershed Before the Dawn of Ditching and Draining

Carolina parakeet

John James Audubon painting of the Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis). In December 1810, Audubon wrote, "...thousands of parroquets, that came to night, were to me objects of interst and curiosity."

The Ohio River runs clear, thousands of Carolina parakeets are roosting in hollow trunks of large sycamore trees, wolves and panthers are plenty, bear, buffalo and beaver abound, and giant cane grows 30 to 40 feet high in brakes up to a mile wide.  Cypress-tupelo swamps and floodplain forests cover over 250,000 acres, while the remaining quarter million acres are a combination of rich hardwood forests and oak barrens. (John White, Cache River Area Assessment: Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Cache River Area, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 1997)

This was the Cache River Basin at the very southern tip of Illinois as described by early explorers in the 1600s and 1700s. The incredible abundance of wild game and clean water began attracting settlers, which initiated a downward spiral on the unique wetlands ecosystem. In order to understand the how and why of these impacts it helps to understand a little more about the Cache and the lay of the land.

The Cache begins its 110-mile journey through the basin in northern Union County near the little town of Cobden. It meanders through the Lower Shawnee Hills in a southeasterly direction through Union County and starts heading more south than east through Johnson County until, near the little town of Belknap, it hits a wide valley carved by the ancient, former course of the Ohio River. At this point, the Cache makes an about-face and follows the old river course through the Cache valley to end its voyage at the present Ohio River between Mounds City and Cairo.

By the end of the 1800s, after settlers had worn out and abandoned the farmland in the uplands and logged all the accessible timber in the basin, they set their sites on the land and timber in lower, flatter Cache valley.

Enter the age of ditching and draining and devastating ecosystem damage. To be continued… week!

Canoeing the upper Cache

Recent flooding in southern Illinois has led to many opportunities to play in the many rivers and creeks. Posted here are a few shots taken during a short paddle in a tributary of the Cache River.

canoeing the cache

Opportunities to paddle in the headwaters of the Cache are rare. The upper Cache rarely carries enough water to navigate during flood event.

The brown line above the surface of the water is the level of the water from just a few days prior. It had already dropped enough to make canoeing over log jams a bit of a hassle. The brown color is from silt–one of the big problems in the Cache watershed. Fortunately, many landowners and farmers in the watershed have been working diligently to slow the infiltration of silt into the Cache River proper.  Continue reading