Drought has caused many problems, but it's provided a rare opportunity for volunteers working to clear debris from the Des Plaines and other rivers.
Low flows have made it easier to spot items that normally would be underwater, leading to cleanup bonanzas for groups trying to make waterways safer and more enjoyable for canoeists and kayakers.
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Besides coconuts -- more about that later -- the hauls have netted a variety of larger items, including a claw-foot bathtub and even the kitchen sink. Literally.
One recent mission netted 33 tires from around a two-mile stretch of the Des Plaines River between the Independence Grove Forest Preserve and Oak Spring Road near Libertyville.
"It took us two days," said Paul Klonowski, a Gurnee resident and volunteer coordinator for the river stewardship group for the Lake County Forest Preserve District. "We had the canoes full. We had to go back and get the rest."
Two of the tires were still on rims and had inner tubes -- signs they had been in the water for quite some time, he said.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for us to get stuff cleaned up that we normally don't ever see," said Klonowski, who organizes river cleanups as often as once a week as the weather, river conditions and scheduling allows.
"We're working on what we think is an old farmer's fuel tank from many, many years ago," he said.
Klonowski said the river level has been the lowest he has seen in his more than a decade of working on it. At one point for a short time July 18, the U.S. Geological Survey gauge at Russell Road in northern Lake County read zero cubic feet per second, he said.
"All of the rivers are at very, very low stages," observed Tom Eckels, program manager for the Illinois Water TrailKeepers, a volunteer group that plies nearly 350 stream miles on seven waterways in nine counties. Eckels, of Lake Villa, and Klonowski volunteer for each other's efforts.
"Low water is the ideal time to do a cleanup," said Eckels, who once helped pull a V-8 engine from the Des Plaines. "The drought is good for river cleanups, but I don't think that makes the drought good."
Last weekend, about 65 volunteers working on the Fox River at St. Charles, Oswego and Montgomery found about two dozen tires, metal drums and other debris, he said. Cleanups also provide aesthetic and ecological benefits, but the groups don't keep records of exactly how much debris is removed.
The next big cleanup event on the Des Plaines is scheduled for Sept. 15. Contact Eckels at email@example.com to participate.
Klonowski and some volunteers are specially trained in the use of chain saws to remove some fallen trees or log jams. But log clearing work that requires heavy equipment on a boat has been limited because of the water level.
Recent rains have improved the situation, according to Jon Hortness, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.
"We're still on the low end of normal," he said Friday. "It was a lot below normal until the last week or two."
Over the years, Klonowski and Eckels have pulled an array of items from area waterways, including television sets, sports equipment, auto parts, picnic tables, furniture, shopping carts, bicycles, road signs and lawn mowers. Several years ago, a two-seater car was unearthed from the Des Plaines near Lake-Cook Road.
The volunteer efforts have had an effect on the river, said Mark Speckan, forestry crew chief of the Lake County Forest Preserve District.
"There's a lot less debris than there was years ago," he said. "They've pulled all kinds of crazy stuff out."
That routinely includes coconuts, which apparently are used as part of a religious ritual, Eckels said.
"We find them in various states of decoration, nondecoration, decay and freshness," he said.
"At least the coconuts are going to decompose and not leach chemicals for thousands of years."