Thursday, December 23, 2004

Rebirth of the Boneyard Creek

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Late last April I got an excited e-mail from a friend telling me he’d been out after work with his fly rod and had found a little stream where he caught twenty fish before heading home for dinner. Now, before you write this off as a fisherman’s tall tale, I’ll admit on his behalf that none of the fish involved was bigger than your hand, nor were they trout or bass or any of the other species angling writers gush about. Except for a few striped shiners and a single grass pickerel they were all green sunfish, which are known primarily for their capacity to tolerate degraded aquatic conditions.

However lowly those fish, though, what really surprised me was the fact that my friend had caught anything at all, since the little stream he had discovered was in fact the Boneyard Creek.

Listeners whose familiarity with Champaign Urbana and the U of I campus goes back more than ten years may recall the Boneyard as the waterway that used to flood Campustown—a headache to business owners and civic officials, and a source of amusement for students who took advantage of the opportunity to canoe the intersection of Fourth and Green. Barring anything really out of the ordinary in local weather those days are gone, thanks to the recent completion of the first phase of a thirty-year plan worked out between the City of Champaign and the U of I in 1994.

As a result of that project, nearly all of the creek that was once visible between First and Wright Streets in Champaign now lies buried beneath a rather unprepossessing linear park.

The case is much different on the U of I engineering campus, however, where planners took into account environmental and aesthetic values as they reshaped the stream. Instead of burying it, they have drawn attention to it, incorporating features that give it a natural appearance and make it hospitable to aquatic life.

The retaining walls there are faced with block and natural stone rather than smooth concrete or corrugated metal. The channel is marked by some of the variation characteristic of free-flowing streams—deeper pools, shallow riffles, and even a few meanders. And all of this is complemented by landscaping that uses native plants to further the impression of a natural area. Most welcome of all, a person need not risk life or limb to get near the creek, thanks to grassy slopes that lead right to the water’s edge at a number of points.

And it’s not just low-rent anglers who have taken an interest in the Boneyard’s fish, which returned to the stretch of creek flowing through campus when a barrier downstream was removed as part of the reconstruction. In a report yet to be released, an undergraduate student from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has undertaken to assess the biological integrity of the creek by studying its fish community. The data she has collected would rank the Boneyard well below our area’s more pristine streams—say the Middle Fork and lower reaches of the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River—but well above the lifeless stretches where the Boneyard itself runs through a featureless concrete channel.

While there are some hard realities that will limit the Boneyard’s potential for recovery—most of its flow is constituted by urban runoff, and the channel must be maintained to move massive amounts of storm water—it’s nonetheless heartening to see this creek celebrated rather than buried on the U of I campus.