History of the Illinois Waterway

The Illinois Waterway, operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers, is very popular as a recreation destination.  Over 300 miles long, the Illinois Waterway provides many opportunities for boaters to get out and enjoy themselves.  The Illinois Waterway includes the entire Illinois River, along with portions of the Des Plaines, Chicago and Calumet Rivers.  Locks operated by the Corps allow both commercial and recreation boaters to travel along the more than 300 miles of the Illinois Waterway. 

Originally described by early explorers as a “boundless marsh,” the Illinois River has a long history as a home for large numbers of many different birds, wildlife, fish and plant species.  However, over time the Illinois River Basin has experienced the loss of ecological integrity due to silt buildup in backwaters and side channels.  The losses of tributary streams, flood control activities, poor erosion control and other impacts of human activities have also damaged these natural resources.   Despite these problems, the Illinois River represents one of the most productive resources in the Midwest and has high potential for restoration. The National Research Council identified the Illinois River as one of the three large rivers in the lower 48 states that can be restored to an approximation of its outstanding biological past.

The entire Illinois River Basin includes approximately 19.2 million acres, covering 44 percent of the land area of the State of Illinois and including more than a dozen tributaries of the main river. About 1,000 square miles of the watershed extend into Wisconsin. The Kankakee and Iroquois Rivers extend 3,200 square miles into Indiana. Even a small part of Michigan is included in the Illinois River drainage basin.

The Illinois River Basin includes 46 percent of Illinois’ agricultural land, 28 percent of its forests, 37 percent of its surface waters and streams, and 95 percent of its urban areas.

The Illinois River Basin Restoration Program seeks to restore and maintain ecological integrity to the region.  This work includes rebuilding the habitats for native species. The program also encourages looking at the entire watershed as a unit, instead of each stream, creek and tributary river separately.  Once complete, the Illinois Waterway region will be an even greater magnet for people wanting to go boating, fishing or hunting.

Today and in the future, the responsibility for safe use of the Illinois Waterway rest with the recreation users.  Boaters, anglers and hunters need to include safety in their trip planning.

Among the multiple agencies responsible for promoting the safe use of the Illinois Waterway is the US Army Corps of Engineers.  Corps of Engineers Park Rangers are dedicated to educating boaters about how to use the water safely.