Upper Des Plaines River Watershed Profile  
The Upper Des Plaines River originates in primarily agricultural Racine and Kenosha Counties in southeastern Wisconsin and flows south by southeast to the confluence with Salt Creek near Riverside, Illinois. (Salt Creek is a tributary of the Lower Des Plaines River.) The Upper Des Plaines River basin drains approximately 480 square miles (307,000 acres) of land, 346 of which are in Illinois.

The basin is comprised of a variety of land uses, stages of development, and habitat types. Generally speaking, the upper half of the basin is characterized by a combination of:
The lower half of the basin, in Cook County and the far northeast corner of DuPage, is highly developed, yet small concentrations of forests and wetlands have been preserved along the Des Plaines and some tributaries.

Remaining agricultural land within the basin exists primarily in Racine and Kenosha Counties, and the northern reaches of Lake County. Approximately 92 square miles (68 percent) of the Wisconsin portion of the watershed was in agriculture in 1990, and is slowly converting to urban use. In 1995, farm acreage in Illinois comprised only 9 percent of the land, down from 38 percent in 1925. Between 1978 and 1993, however, farm acreage dropped by 22 percent. The landscape becomes increasingly interspersed with higher concentrations of urbanization from north to south.
The Upper Des Plaines River Watershed includes the following 15 subwatersheds:
1.  Upper Des Plaines River (mainstem)
2.  Brighton Creek
3.  Root River
4.  Kilbourn Ditch
5.  Salem Branch
6.  Jerome Creek
7.  North Mill Creek
8.  Newport Drainage Ditch
9.  Mill Creek
10. Bull Creek
11. Indian Creek
12. Aptakisic Creek
13. Buffalo Creek
14. McDonald Creek
15. Willow Creek
Detailed Map of the Des Plaines River Watershed pdf

Map of Subwatersheds pdf

Population Map pdf

Land Use Map pdf
What is a Watershed?
A watershed is an area of land that drains into a given river, lake or other water body. Unlike municipal boundaries, watershed boundaries are defined by nature, and therefore watersheds often overlap a number of municipal jurisdictions.
Watershed Planning
Why develop a watershed plan?
Watershed plans provide direction and target resources for better management and restoration of the watershed. The plan serves as a blueprint for improving water quality, reducing flood damage, and protecting natural resources in a watershed -- and for preventing existing watershed problems from worsening in the future as a result of imprudent land development. Additionally, watershed planning offers an opportunity for multiple jurisdictions with varying priorities to coordinate their efforts and accept their responsibility for the impact their actions have both up and downstream.*

Stream Restoration

Before European settlement, rain that fell on the landscape seeped into the ground, collected in wetlands and ponds, and trickled into rivers and streams. Increasing modifications to the landscape for agriculture and urban uses increased the rate and volume of water flowing over the landscape directly into stream channels. These channels, unaccustomed to high and fast flows, began to overflow with greater frequency, leading landowners to seek solutions to the flooding. Unfortunately, though landowners may have enjoyed minor immediate flood relief, straightening and deepening stream channels to convey flood waters away from the land caused more problems than it solved. Changes in stormwater volume and flow rates led to increased flooding downstream, habitat disruption in the modified reaches, and serious erosion and loss of streambank stability.

In spite of the numerous flood control efforts, the Des Plaines River is one of the most flood-prone waterways in the region. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, damaging floods have occurred once or twice per decade since 1930. Devastating floods in the late 1980's in Lake and Cook Counties caused over $100 million in damage. This situation is expected to worsen as more of the watershed is converted to impervious surfaces and urban uses.

The Lake County Stormwater Management Commission's web site offers more information about their Flood Hazard Mitigation Plan and flood assistance for citizens.


The hydrology of the river basin has been altered in a number of ways. Many of the original wetlands, at one time covering nearly a quarter of the basin, have been tiled and drained to create agricultural land and to provide a stable substrate to support buildings, roads, and other infrastructure. The water levels of many of the lakes are unnaturally controlled for recreational and flood control purposes. Dams along the main stem and tributaries of the Des Plaines have altered natural water flow patterns and caused other problems such as siltation and degradation of aquatic habitat. Urban and suburban development often alters hydrology necessary to maintain natural communities by increasing or decreasing the quantity of water flowing into the community. Natural flow regimes are so modified that natural low summer flows are artificially supplemented by wastewater inputs, or greatly lowered due to the reduction in natural baseflows, especially in tributaries. Correspondingly, floods and stormwater-related flow velocities are much greater than under pre-settlement conditions. As a consequence of the impacts of hydrologic alteration, plant and animal species that depend on stable, natural hydrologic patterns are disrupted or displaced. In a worst case scenario, these species disappear from the basin altogether.

Subsurface water flow is also affected by human modification of the landscape and affects natural systems such as wetlands and streams that depend on groundwater flow.

Remaining habitat in the basin is highly fragmented—broken up into small pieces, by roads, subdivisions, farm fields, and other development. Fragmentation reduces large patches of habitat, which support a variety of species and viable populations, into smaller patches incapable of supporting species diversity and populations. Some species, especially forest and grassland birds, can breed successfully only in large, contiguous habitat blocks. A piecemeal landscape of small natural areas also will not fully support migratory patterns that some species depend on for survival. While some more mobile species can leapfrog from patch to patch, larger connected habitat areas will be necessary to maintain and recover the diversity and health of ecosystems in the upper Des Plaines basin.

Protected floodplain lands along the mainstem of the upper Des Plaines River provide a good example of the contiguity that is essential for protecting adequate habitat. This corridor should be incorporated into a network of protected natural areas within the watershed including the tributaries of the upper Des Plaines and upland habitats.

Non-native species, originally from outside of the region or country, have invaded the basin. These species, many of them introduced by European settlers or later inhabitants, are highly adaptable to disturbed landscapes, including aquatic systems, where they outcompete and replace native species. The greater the degree of disturbance caused by human alteration, the more easily these invasive species can take root and spread. To make matters worse, areas in which non-native species have become established often lack natural control mechanisms such as predators and diseases that keep their populations in check.

Non-native species also increase the degree of erosion and sedimentation in the watershed. As deep-rooted native species are replaced by invasive species with much shallower root systems, soil becomes less stable and more susceptible to erosive processes. Ultimately, this has negative impacts on water quality.

Garlic Mustard
Some of the more notorious forest invaders of the region are common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica ) and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata ) Many of the basin's wetlands are dominated by non-native and invasive species such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria ), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea ), buckthorn, boxelder (Acer negundo ), eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides ), and green ash (Fraxinus ). While not all of these species are non-native, they all disrupt natural systems.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has identified 16 distinct habitat types in the basin including forested wetland, emergent wetland, scrub/shrub wetland, sedge meadow], wet and mesic prairie, bottomland hardwoods, and oak savannas.* A 1970 survey by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) found 26 high quality remnant natural communities in or near the Upper Des Plaines River basin, nine of which are now permanently protected Illinois Nature Preserves. The list includes Busse Woods, Edward L. Ryerson, Reed-Turner Woodland, MacArthur Woods, Wadsworth Prairie, Lloyd's Woods, Liberty Prairie, Oak Openings, and Almond Marsh. The status of the remaining 17 high quality remnants has not been documented. Together these natural areas compose nearly 2,300 acres, only 440 acres of which are INAI designated Category I (highest quality) sites.

The majority of the other preserved areas within the Illinois portion of the basin are owned by forest preserve districts of Lake and Cook Counties. In fact, the county forest preserve districts own much of the Des Plaines River floodplain corridor. No federal or state parks or preserves are found in the basin in Illinois.

Aquatic habitats include major riverine systems, as well as small and ephemeral streams. At least 176 pothole lakes, created by melting fragments of ice remaining after the most recent glacial period, still exist in Lake County portions of the basin. The majority of Cook County's lakes have been drained.

*Source: Interim Feasibility Report and Draft Environmental Impact Statement , U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District, 1999.

Pre-settlement vegetation of the Wisconsin portion of the watershed included oak forest, oak savanna, prairie, and open wetlands, including deep and shallow marsh, wet prairie, and sedge meadow communities. In 1990, 13.6 percent of the watershed was covered by natural vegetation, 99.6 percent of which was wetlands and oak forest. Current wetland communities include deep and shallow marsh, southern sedge meadow, fresh (wet) meadow, wet prairie, shrub carr, and southern wet to wet-mesic lowland hardwoods. The remaining 0.4 percent of the current natural vegetation could be classified as prairie.

Twenty natural areas, totaling 1,587 acres (less than 2 percent of the Wisconsin watershed area), were identified, 15 of which (759 acres) are unprotected and in private ownership. Nine of these natural areas were judged to be of high or moderately high quality. There are 74 existing park and open space sites within the watershed, totaling about 5,436 acres. Forty-seven of these sites encompassing 3,077 acres are in public ownership.

Eighteen lakes and ponds larger than two acres are located within the Wisconsin basin. Approximately 69 miles of perennial streams drain the basin.

Flora and Fauna
Forty-three mammal species are either known or are thought to be living in the Illinois portion of the basin. Sixty-six species of amphibians, and 23 reptiles make up the herpetological classification. Of nearly 300 bird species regularly found in Illinois, 270 are found in the upper Des Plaines basin for at least part of the year. A number of these species, including 14 that are threatened or endangered, are dependent on wetland habitats.

Aquatic macroinvertebrate surveys found that pollution-tolerant species (i.e., Oligochaeta , Chironomids , and Gastropoda ) are found throughout the study area, and pollution-intolerant species (i.e. Coleoptera , Ephemeroptera, Megaloptera and Tricoptera ) are found in greater proportions in Lake County reaches of the river than in Cook County. Mussel diversity in the entire study area is lower than that of other more pristine rivers of the state. This may be due to the high concentrations of sediments, some of them polluted, at the bottom of streams where most mussels live and feed. In 1975 and 1976, the Lake County Forest Preserve District collected 7 genera of blue-green algae (Cyanophyta ), 13 genera of green algae (Chlorophyta ), and 18 genera of diatoms (Chrysophyta ). Regarding fish surveys, higher quality fishery resources, greater species diversity, more game species, and more pollution-intolerant species are found in Lake County than in Cook County. An improvement in fish diversity, number of sport fish, and overall abundance was noted between 1979 and 1993.*

In general, the aquatic community composition represents a continuum from species adapted to high quality conditions (e.g. northern pike, largemouth bass, spotfin shiner, ephemeropterid insects, and freshwater clams) to those commonly associated with polluted conditions (e.g. carp, green sunfish, white sucker, chironomid insects, oligochaeta worms, and freshwater snails.)* In general, this trend follows an upstream to downstream orientation.

Over 600 species of vascular plants have been tallied in the Illinois portion of the basin.

A number of state threatened and endangered species are found in the watershed. In Illinois, twelve bird species, two reptiles, one fish, and twenty-four plant taxa are on the official list of threatened or endangered species. Plant species that are threatened or endangered in Illinois include downy willow herb, bog bedstraw, and common bog arrow grass. The prairie white-fringed orchid is considered federally threatened. State-listed animal species include the veery (Catharus fescuescens ), Iowa darter (Etheostoma exile), northern black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nyticorax), and double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus).

Federally threatened animal species that have not been observed in the Illinois study area, but whose ranges overlap the study area, are the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) and Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis).

The federally threatened bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was observed in the watershed in 2004.

*Source: Interim Feasibility Report and Draft Environmental Impact Statement , U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Chicago District, 1999.

Wisconsin surveys found a total diversity of 46 fish species between 1906 through 1980, and 29 species were found in the 1994 survey. Trends indicate a loss of overall species diversity over time, as well as the loss of pollution intolerant species, indicating the degraded condition of water quality.

Ten critical vascular plant species have been identified in the Wisconsin portion of the watershed. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources designates two as endangered, three as threatened, and five as special concern, or watch, species. Thirteen species of amphibians and 16 reptile species have been identified, as well as 216 bird species, and 36 mammal species. Fourteen animal species that have been listed as endangered or threatened in the State of Wisconsin occur within the watershed.


Water quality assessments of 38 lakes in the basin in 1994-95 by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) indicated that only four showed moderate impairment due to pollution. Twenty-four of the lakes were judged to fully support the uses for which they are designated, but 16 of the lakes show a declining trend in water quality.* IEPA assessments of 71 of the basin's lakes found that 51 percent are in good condition, 44 percent are in fair condition, and only 5 percent are in poor condition. Major threats to lakes in the upper Des Plaines basin include invasive species, nutrient loading, sedimentation, loss of native submerged and emergent vegetation, and toxic substances, especially those flushed off the agricultural and urban landscape.**

*Source: Illinois Department of Natural Resources
** Biodiversity Recovery Plan , Chicago Wilderness, 2000.

Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway
The Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway covers nearly 8,000 acres and protects land along more than 85 percent of the river in Lake County, providing wildlife habitat, natural flood protection and outdoor recreation opportunities. The Des Plaines River Trail is nearly complete and connects ten Forest Preserves with local parks and communities as it winds through the Greenway from just south of the Illinois-Wisconsin border to Deerfield, and ending at Lake Cook Road. Currently 31 miles are open. Bridges and underpasses make it possible to travel without crossing any major roads.

Spanning nearly the entire length of Lake County, this 31-mile multi-use trail follows the river's edge from Russell Road in Wadsworth to W. Riverside Drive in Lincolnshire. It picks up again at Estonian Lane and runs south to Lake Cook Road where it connects to Cook County Forest Preserve trails.

Lake County Forest Preserve District
In addition to the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway, the Lake County Forest Preserve District's extensive network of natural areas offers a variety of recreational opportunities including bicycling, paddling, cross-country skiing, hiking, and horseback riding.

Water Trails
The entire Des Plaines River is part of the Northeastern Illinois Water Trails system. Visit the Northeastern Illinois Water Trails site for a trip planner, safety tips, canoe rental information, and more. The site also offers an excellent map which you can view online and receive for free by mail.
Arlington Heights
Beach Park
Buffalo Grove
Deer Park
Des Plaines
Elk Grove Village
Elmwood Park
Forest Park
Franklin Park
Green Oaks
Harwood Heights
Hawthorn Woods
Indian Creek
Lake Forest
Lake Shangrila
Lake Villa
Lake Zurich
Long Grove
Melrose Park
Morton Grove
Mount Prospect
North Riverside
Oak Park
Old Mill Creek
Paddock Lake
Park City
Park Ridge
Pleasant Prairie
Prospect Heights
River Forest
River Grove
Rolling Meadows
Round Lake Beach
Round Lake Park
Schiller Park
Stone Park
Third Lake
Union Grove
Vernon Hills
Wood Dale
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