How progress affects the Fox River

  • The Fox River sports a greenish hue as it runs along Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve in St. Charles Township.

    The Fox River sports a greenish hue as it runs along Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve in St. Charles Township. Laura Stoecker

  • Processed lumber and plastic fencing litter a bank in the middle of the Fox River near Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve in St. Charles Township.

    Processed lumber and plastic fencing litter a bank in the middle of the Fox River near Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve in St. Charles Township. Laura Stoecker

  • A plastic bottle litters the bank of the Fox River along Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve in St. Charles Township, where trash and recycling receptacles are located just 10 steps away. (This bottle made it to the recycling receptacle after the photo was taken.)

    A plastic bottle litters the bank of the Fox River along Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve in St. Charles Township, where trash and recycling receptacles are located just 10 steps away. (This bottle made it to the recycling receptacle after the photo was taken.) Laura Stoecker

 
By Valerie Blaine
Posted10/25/2010 1:00 AM

The river has changed color.

Last week, the Fox River flowed past me sporting its usual green split-pea-soup color. Today, it flowed like chalky skim milk.

 

The river's color morph has spawned thoughts about human impacts on the land, water and wildlife in the Fox Valley. My ponderings have ranged from physics and ecology to psychology and spirituality. Strange bedfellows, to be sure, but they all contribute to the world we, and all other living organisms, call home.

First, assuming poetic license from Sir Isaac Newton: every action we take causes an ecological reaction. Building a bridge or tearing down a dam, paddling a canoe or riding Jet Skis, pouring used oil in a storm drain or planting native vegetation along the river shore these actions all lead to ecological reactions.

In the case of the changing palette of the Fox River, it's a fair assumption that the chalky color is due to sediment and construction materials stirred up by upstream bridge construction. It's likely (or hopeful) that the project managers are following all the requisite county, state and federal regulations.

No matter how adeptly they jump through the hoops of red tape, though, the fact of the matter remains hauling large equipment into a river to build a bridge has an effect on the downstream environment.

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When construction is complete, the ribbon-cutting ceremony is over, and the first car crosses after the bridge, the long-term impacts on the river begin. Cars and trucks will bring noise and motor oil. Streetlights on the bridge will bring light pollution. Winter's ice and snow will bring road salt. Lots of road salt. These ongoing effects last long past the project's completion.

Here's where our psychology and behavior come in. Why are bridges built? In part because we, as a community, are addicted to the automobile. We insist upon driving across the river as often as we want. We assume that unfettered driving is a constitutional right and by golly, we should not have to tolerate traffic jams. The river is an annoying obstruction to our driving fix. Thus bridge after bridge is built to move cars and trucks across the river, back and forth, day in, day out. Roads are widened on either side to accommodate cars entering and exiting the bridges. Ostensibly, bridges will relieve traffic jams. But traffic is never relieved by building more bridges; it's encouraged. Which, of course, will eventually lead to the need for another bridge. I often wonder why no one has suggested filling in the entire river with concrete to once and for all remove the impediment it presents for vehicles?

Ah, but this is progress, we are told. Progress is part and parcel of the euphemistic term "development." Oddly, development is really destruction of habitat. The immense and diverse prairie ecosystem succumbed to the plow and subsequently to agribusiness' version of development. The business of growing crops is called "production," but this is yet another misnomer. Like mining minerals from the earth, 150 years of profit-driven agricultural practices depleted the resources of the soil. Farm fields have now sprouted McMansions (with new profit motives). Fields of McMansions require roads, and roads lead to the river, and we have to get across the river often with promptness and dispatch.

Thus, in the course of progress, the river will change color once in a while.

But wait, many people love the Fox River. It's a big part of why they live here. The river is a source of spiritual nourishment, artistic inspiration, and strength. Many find peace in watching the river flow in natural riffles and runs. People are soothed by the sound of flowing water. They find solace in watching native wildlife in the free-running river. And color matters.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Can we choose what color the river runs? Yes. But first we have to decide if we love the river more than we love our addiction to the car culture. Then we have to decide if we want to just take from the river without giving back, or if we're willing to give a bit of ourselves.

We have choices in how far and how often we drive, how many cars we own, and the types of cars we buy. We have choices in the products we purchase and the transportation involved in getting those products to the store or to our doorstep. We have choices in supporting and using alternative transportation. We have choices in how we landscape and how we manage vegetation along the river. We have choices in participating in river clean up events.

We are in charge of our choices, our actions, our lifestyle, and the ecological "footprint" we make. Our footprint can be a big stomp, or as a Native American elder has said, our every step on earth can be a prayer. The lighter and more reverent the step, the softer the footprint.

As I write, egrets are stalking in the shallows of the river, looking for lunch. An old gas can has washed up on a gravel bar, joining the miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam of progress. A fisherman pulls in a catch downstream. A dragonfly maneuvers the airspace over the water while a jet from O'Hare drones in the sky. And the colorful river flows on.


Valerie Blaine is a naturalist by the Fox River in St. Charles. You can reach her at blainevalerie@kaneforest.com.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

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