Experts hope the restoration of a ravine in Highland Park will benefit fish and other tiny aquatic critters.
Most ravines on the North Shore are mainly to drain stormwater into Lake Michigan. But Park District of Highland Park officials sought a tricky balance three years ago when they began improving the structural integrity of a ravine for runoff — while also making it easier for fish to swim upstream and spawn.
In partnership with other agencies, the park district secured a $200,000 federal grant to restore the habitat that drains water through Ravine Beach, also known as "Ravine 7." (There are 11 ravines in Highland Park.)
As part of that restoration, elementary and high school students learned hands-on lessons about the way life in one ravine ecosystem can affect the water quality of Lake Michigan.
Many of those students had never even been in a ravine, despite growing up so close to one. Now some of them hope to change the world, one ravine at a time.
"It really opened up my eyes," said Russell Friedman, a 19-year-old environmental science major at the University of Iowa. "I always liked being outdoors, but I never appreciated nature until then."
In his senior year at Highland Park High School in 2012, Friedman took an environmental science class. Working with the nonprofit group Trout Unlimited, the class studied the ravine, took water samples and learned about micro-invertebrates. They began to see how development and years of environmental neglect had harmed the ecosystem.
"It opened my eyes to how much damage we were doing," said Friedman, born and raised in Highland Park. "A lot of kids didn't realize that."
Most ravines along the North Shore used to be teeming with fish and aquatic life. But few could be restored like the one in Highland Park, said Charles Shabica, a coastline engineer whose firm, Shabica & Associates, designed and engineered the restoration of the Highland Park ravine.
Because of development over the years, many of the ravines have been eroded by a drastic increase in stormwater runoff, Shabica said. Neighboring communities on the North Shore — such as Lake Bluff, Glencoe and Winnetka — work on their ravines, Shabica said. But those projects are more focused on protecting against erosion, less on environmental restoration.
"We're living in a modified environment where, like a garden, we have to tend it a lot more," Shabica said. "Before human beings, it didn't need to be tended."
The Ravine 7 project in Highland Park was funded by the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which began in 2009 when President Barack Obama signaled that restoration of the region was a national priority. The Alliance for the Great Lakes also supported the project.
Highland Park park officials saw an opportunity to reconnect the ravine watershed with fish species once abundant there — including chub, white suckers, rainbow trout, and the endangered long-nose dace.
Highland Park's 11 natural ravines number more than in any community along the North Shore. The park district manages four of the ravine outfalls; the rest are a mix of city and private property, said Rebecca Grill, natural areas manager for the Park District of Highland Park.
On a recent walk in the ravine with students, conservationists, and U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Illinois, Grill further explained the project.
"We teach that everybody lives in a watershed and this particular watershed is draining about 375 acres of Highland Park, including parts of downtown, the area around the library and city hall," Grill said.
In recent years, people have begun looking at ravines from a more environmental perspective, she said.
"What it does is tie into fish spawning seasons and if you go back 9,000 years people who lived here would actually spearfish the sucker fish that ran up into these streams. That was their protein; fish running into tributaries to Lake Michigan, all along the lakeshore and up into Wisconsin," Grill said.
"Like many things, we've lost our connections with those sorts of things," she said. "And most of the streams like this one that outfall at the lake are now blocked off."
The mouth of Ravine 7 had been blocked by an unsightly concrete and steel barrier erected to protect sanitary sewer lines from breaking and contaminating the surrounding area.