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Sediment Poses Both Opportunity and Challenge in the Illinois River

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Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio
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A look towards the McClugage Bridge and Illinois River from the East Peoria shoreline.

Paul Rosenbohm routinely mixes lawn waste, food scraps and pumpkin residue from area farms for the Better Earth compost he markets throughout central Illinois.

But he may have uncovered another ingredient for the mix: sediment from the Illinois River.

While located nearby and virtually unlimited in quantity, the silt and sediment that’s been choking the river for decades poses several challenges.

“It has to be dredged out of the river and then transported,” said Rosenbohm, whose Peoria-based company is participating in a dredging project later this summer.

“We’re going to fill up two barges of sediment from the Illinois River near Creve Coeur. I’ll pay for one and ADM will pay for one,” he said.

Experts say the sediment—which amounts to soil that’s run off farm fields in Illinois—has the potential to make excellent filler or even as a topsoil.

“There are millions of tons of sediment in the Illinois River. It overwhelmed me at first just thinking about it,” said Rosenbohm, a former dairy farmer who serves as a member of the Peoria County Board.

While sediment can serve as a soil additive or alternative, dredging would also improve the river’s wildlife habitat and recreation potential, note state officials who have long sought a solution to the siltation problem of a river once so bountiful that, at the turn of the 20th century, supported some 2,000 commercial fishermen.

But dispersing the dredged material is a weighty problem, said Rosenbohm. “You need to involve the right people. Someone has to make money out of it,” he said.

“Lining up the players, building the market is challenging enough. Now you’ve got a pandemic thrown in there. Money’s an issue,” said Rosenbohm, who credited Ray Lees, planning program manager at Tri-County Regional Planning Commission in Downtown Peoria, for helping coordinate the dredging project.

“Ray has done a fantastic job. He keeps everybody talking,” said Rosenbohm.

For Lees, it’s a case of recognizing opportunities that are presented. “For a project like this, you look for resources in our region. One group we’ve found that’s enthusiastic about the (dredging) project are scientists at the Peoria Ag Lab,” said Lees.

Eric Miller, Tri-County’s executive director, said the concept is working elsewhere. “There’s nothing new about it. Other states are doing it,” he said.

“In Toledo, Ohio, they’re dredging the lake there and using the sediment. Minnesota also has a model in place,” said Miller.