Tag Archives: cache river

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.


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 roost...at 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…..next 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