Sedimentation has severely impacted backwater lakes along the Illinois River. The State of Illinois and the US Army Corps of Engineers are currently involved in a joint effort to address ecosystem degradation within the Illinois River Basin, and excessive sedimentation of backwater lakes and side channels is a primary cause of that degradation. Necessary parts of the overall restoration effort are to adequately characterize both the quality and quantity of backwater lake sediments prior to implementing any restoration efforts, and to identify potential beneficial reuses of dredged sediments. This paper summarizes some of our efforts in these areas with an emphasis on Peoria Lake which has received the most attention to date. Sediment characterization has included detailed bathymetric surveys, sediment dating with 137Cs, chemical and mineralogical characterization of sediments to three meters depth, analysis of recent sediments (to 30 cm depth) for acid-volatile sulfide and simultaneously extracted metals, and analysis of ammonia and toxic metals in sediment pore waters. Dredged sediments have also been used in various trial projects to demonstrate potential handling and beneficial reuse strategies.

Some significant findings of these studies are: 1) Long-term sedimentation rates are high, and average 1–3 cm y−1; 2) total concentrations of several trace metals (e.g., Pb, Cd, Ni) and PAH compounds sometimes exceed consensus-based probable effect levels for sensitive sediment-dwelling organisms; 3) pore water dissolved ammonia concentrations in Peoria Lake are potentially toxic to sensitive sediment-dwelling species; and 4) weathered sediments can make productive agricultural soils.

Introduction

The Illinois River waterway extends 327 miles from Lake Michigan at Chicago to its confluence with the Mississippi River 40 miles above St. Louis. The 30,000 mi2 watershed is primarily agricultural and drains 44% of the land area of Illinois and portions of Wisconsin and Indiana (Figure 1; Talkington, 1991). The backwater lakes and side channels that are most numerous along the lower two-thirds of the Waterway are severely impacted by excessive sedimentation that has been accelerated by human activities such as agriculture, levee construction and urbanization. For example, by 1985 Peoria Lake had lost 68% of its 1903 volume at target pool elevation (Figure 2; Demissie and Bhowmik, 1985).

Figure 1.

Illinois River basin showing locations of Chicago and Peoria (left) and schematic showing river gradient and major pools (right).

Figure 1.

Illinois River basin showing locations of Chicago and Peoria (left) and schematic showing river gradient and major pools (right).

Figure 2.

Map of Peoria Lake showing depth loss between 1903 and 1985 (from Demissie and Bhowmik, 1985).

Figure 2.

Map of Peoria Lake showing depth loss between 1903 and 1985 (from Demissie and Bhowmik, 1985).

The State of Illinois and the US Army Corps of Engineers are currently involved in a joint effort to address ecosystem degradation within the Illinois River Basin. This effort, authorized under Section 519 of the Water Resources and Development Act of 2000, recognizes that excessive sedimentation of backwater lakes and side channels is a primary cause of the ecosystem degradation. A program to characterize adequately both the quality and quantity of sediments in backwater lakes prior to implementing any specific restoration efforts and to identify beneficial uses for those dredged sediments is a necessary part of the overall restoration plan. The purpose of this paper is to summarize some of our efforts in these areas.

Field and laboratory methods

Sediment collection, processing and analysis

The majority of our sediment characterization efforts have consisted of reconnaissance studies in which sediment cores and grab samples are collected from a wide geographical area along the river. In some cases, more focused studies have been conducted in those areas where specific restoration efforts are planned. Unlike most routine sediment sampling efforts conducted by other government agencies (i.e., USGS, EPA) which mainly concern surficial sediments (< 15 cm depth), the collection and analysis of sediment cores is a primary focus of our work. In-house vibra-coring capabilities allow us to collect 1 to 3 meter long cores, encompassing the entire working depth of most dredging operations. These cores are typically subsampled at from 5 to 25 cm intervals for bulk sediment chemistry analyses, as was done for the total lead (Pb) data presented below.

In another study, short (30–40 cm) hand-driven sediment cores were collected from 10 Peoria Lake locations in April and October 2000 for pore water isolation as well as acid volatile sulfide (AVS) and simultaneously extracted metals (SEM) determinations. Five 6-cm sediment core sections from each location were quickly isolated from the atmosphere and stored cold (4°C) prior to further processing in N2(g)-filled glove bags in the laboratory. In-situ pH and temperature were determined in the field on a second core. Sediment pore waters were isolated via centrifugation followed by 0.2 μ m filtration. Sediment samples isolated for AVS and SEM determinations were placed in glass jars and frozen until analysis. A summary of the analytical methods used for the results presented here are given in Table 1.

Summary of chemical analysis methods.

Table 1.
Summary of chemical analysis methods.
Analyte Method 
Total lead in sediment Hot HF-HNO3-HCl digestion followed by atomic absorption spectroscopy 
Dissolved ammonia Preservation of 0.2μm filtrates with H2SO4 followed by analysis using U.S. EPA method 350.1 
Acid volatile sulfide and simultaneously extracted metals Cold HCl extraction following Allen et al. (1993) followed by titrimetric analysis of sulfide and ICP-MS analyses of simultaneously extracted metals 
Soil fertility analyses of soil and sediments Cation exchange capacity, pH, % organic matter, and extractable P, K, Mg, Ca and Na determined following methods given in Page et al. (1982). 
Analyte Method 
Total lead in sediment Hot HF-HNO3-HCl digestion followed by atomic absorption spectroscopy 
Dissolved ammonia Preservation of 0.2μm filtrates with H2SO4 followed by analysis using U.S. EPA method 350.1 
Acid volatile sulfide and simultaneously extracted metals Cold HCl extraction following Allen et al. (1993) followed by titrimetric analysis of sulfide and ICP-MS analyses of simultaneously extracted metals 
Soil fertility analyses of soil and sediments Cation exchange capacity, pH, % organic matter, and extractable P, K, Mg, Ca and Na determined following methods given in Page et al. (1982). 

Results and discussion

Bulk sediment chemistry

Some total Pb concentrations, primarily from the upper 50 to 80 cm of various backwater lake sediment cores, are plotted as a function of distance along the river in Figure 3. The anthropogenic signature of the Chicago metropolitan area (above river mile 280) is clearly evident since Pb concentrations decrease away from Chicago to values more typical of background concentrations for Illinois soils and sediments (Illinois State Geological Survey, unpublished data; Short, 1997). This is particularly true for the section of the waterway below Peoria (river mile 160). Profiles of other trace metals (e.g., Cu, Zn, Ni, As) show similar geographical patterns, as has also been noted in more detailed studies of surficial sediments nearer Chicago (Colman and Sanzolone, 1992).

Figure 3.

Pb concentration in sediment cores from along the Illinois River as complied from several studies. The Probable Effects Concentration (PEC; MacDonald et al, 2000) for Pb, and the background concentration range for Illinois soils and sediments are given by the dotted line, and bar, respectively.

Figure 3.

Pb concentration in sediment cores from along the Illinois River as complied from several studies. The Probable Effects Concentration (PEC; MacDonald et al, 2000) for Pb, and the background concentration range for Illinois soils and sediments are given by the dotted line, and bar, respectively.

A profile of total Pb concentrations in a 2.5 m Peoria Lake sediment core is given in Figure 4. Depth intervals are accompanied by approximate date as estimated from the depth of the 137Cs peak, and assuming a constant sedimentation rate with little vertical mixing. The depth-integrated sedimentation rate for this core is about 3 cm y−1, which is at the upper end of long-term sedimentation rates for Peoria Lake as a whole (1–3 cm y−1; Cahill, 2001a). Total Pb concentrations peak between about 1920 and 1980, and these concentrations also sometimes exceed consensus-based Probable Effect Concentration (PEC) levels (MacDonald et al., 2000) for freshwater sediments (indicated by dotted lines in Figure 3 and Figure 4). The vertical profiles for other trace metals are similar and also occasionally exceed PEC levels in Peoria Lake.

Figure 4.

Total Pb concentrations in a representative 2.5 m long Peoria Lake sediment core. Also given are approximate ages as determined from 137Cs dating, and the PEC for Pb (vertical dotted line).

Figure 4.

Total Pb concentrations in a representative 2.5 m long Peoria Lake sediment core. Also given are approximate ages as determined from 137Cs dating, and the PEC for Pb (vertical dotted line).

Limited information is available on the concentrations of pesticides, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) compounds in Illinois River sediment cores. Concentrations of PAH compounds exceed PEC levels in some Peoria Lake sediments, but the results between different laboratories have been inconsistent (Cahill, 2001b). The cause of these inconsistencies is currently being investigated, and studies to identify organic matter forms that may be important for PAH sequestration (e.g., soot, black carbon, coal) are also underway.

Pore water ammonia and acid volatile sulfide/simultaneously extracted metals

Ammonia, and in particular the un-ionized NH3 form, is a known toxicant for benthic-dwelling organisms. Toxic conditions are most prevalent when these organisms are in close proximity to anoxic sediment conditions that favor ammonia production and accumulation (Ankley et al., 1990). Similarly, AVS solids may help keep pore water concentrations of trace metals including Cu, Pb, Cd, Zn, and Ni below toxic levels in anoxic sediments (DiToro et al., 1992; Ankley et al., 1996; Chapman et al., 1998). In particular, in sediments where the concentrations of simultaneously extracted Cu, Pb, Cd, Zn, and Ni (collectively termed SEM) are lower than AVS concentrations, sediment toxicity due to those metals is often minimal since excess sulfide is available to form sparingly soluble metal sulfides.

Dissolved ammonium-nitrogen (NH4-N) concentrations are summarized in Figure 5 as ‘box and whisker’ plots. Overlying water column values were usually less than the analytical detection limit of 0.07 mg l−1as NH4-N. Mean and median pore water concentrations, however, increased from about 1 to 2 mg l−1 NH4-N at an average sediment depth of 3 cm, to about 10 to 20 mg l−1NH4-N at 27 cm average sediment depth. Mean and median NH4-N concentrations below 15 cm average sediment depth were also significantly higher during our October sampling dates than those in April, at least in part because of warmer sediment temperatures and increased microbial metabolism.

Figure 5.

Box and whisker plot of dissolved ammonia concentrations in Peoria Lake sediments in April (upper) and October (lower), 2000. Also given is the Chronic Criteria Concentration for ammonia (US EPA, 1999). The inset provides box and whisker definitions. Values outside the length of the whiskers (1.5 times the interquartile range) can be considered statistical outliers.

Figure 5.

Box and whisker plot of dissolved ammonia concentrations in Peoria Lake sediments in April (upper) and October (lower), 2000. Also given is the Chronic Criteria Concentration for ammonia (US EPA, 1999). The inset provides box and whisker definitions. Values outside the length of the whiskers (1.5 times the interquartile range) can be considered statistical outliers.

The dotted line indicates the Chronic Criterion Concentration (CCC) for NH4-N as defined by the U.S. EPA (1999). This CCC value represents that dissolved NH4-N concentration that should not be exceeded more than once every three years on average, when juvenile fish are present. The CCC value is temperature- and especially pH-dependent since both variables determine what fraction of total dissolved ammonia exists as the toxic NH3 form. Mean and median pore water NH4-N concentrations exceeded the CCC at and below 15 cm average sediment depth. Above 15 cm depth, pore water NH4-N concentrations were generally less than the CCC. However, fingernail clams, which are indigenous to the Illinois River and can burrow to several centimeters depth in sediments, may be impaired at NH4-N concentrations lower than the CCC (Sparks and Sandusky, 1981; U.S. EPA, 1999). Consequently, pore water NH4-N concentrations may be toxic to sensitive indigenous species in Peoria Lake.

Concentrations of AVS and SEM are summarized in Figure 6. Acid volatile sulfide was detected in every sediment section analyzed. Since AVS phases are unstable in the presence of oxygen it can be concluded that Peoria Lake sediments are strongly reducing below an average sediment depth of about 3 cm. Concentrations of AVS are lower at 3 cm than at deeper sediment depths, most likely because this sediment section directly contacts the oxygenated overlying water. Levels of AVS are also highly variable at a given sediment depth, which reflects both the variable concentrations found at the various sampling locations within Peoria Lake, and the experimental variability inherent in the AVS extraction and analysis method itself (Allen et al., 1993).

Figure 6.

Box and whisker plot of acid volatile sulfide (AVS, upper) and simultaneously extracted metal (SEM, lower) concentrations in Peoria Lake sediments in April, 2000. The lower right inset shows the frequency distribution for the individual SEM/AVS ratios.

Figure 6.

Box and whisker plot of acid volatile sulfide (AVS, upper) and simultaneously extracted metal (SEM, lower) concentrations in Peoria Lake sediments in April, 2000. The lower right inset shows the frequency distribution for the individual SEM/AVS ratios.

The SEM concentrations were lower than corresponding AVS concentrations in every individual sediment section analyzed, and most individual SEM/AVS ratios were < 0.5 (Figure 6, lower inset). Mean SEM/AVS molar ratios varied from about 0.2 at 9 cm average sediment depth, to about 0.3 at both 3 and 27 cm average sediment depth. These ratios are considerably less than one, which means that none of the individual SEM constituents (Cd, Cu, Pb, Ni, or Zn) is probably toxic in the upper 30 cm of undisturbed Peoria Lake sediments. The considerable excess of AVS over SEM is also probably primarily responsible for the low observed dissolved concentrations of Cd, Cu, Ni, Pb, and Zn in pore waters (< 15 μ g l−1).

Beneficial reuse of dredged sediments

Much of the sediment in the lakes associated with the Illinois River originated from soil erosion in the watershed. Moreover, away from heavily industrialized or urban areas, the concentrations of many potential sediment contaminants including trace metals are generally below levels of concern (e.g., Figure 3). In this instance, and barring any limitations that may be revealed by the ongoing investigation of potential organic contaminants, sediments dredged from the Illinois River should be considered a beneficial resource rather than a waste product (Darmody and Marlin, 2002). Potential beneficial uses include landscaping or top soil application or for the reclamation of strip mined land or brownfields.

The initial problem with dredged, fine-textured sediments such as those from Peoria Lake for use as soil is that they are dispersed, have no soil structure, and may set up like concrete upon drying. This problem is generally overcome after weathering, that is, wetting and drying, freezing and thawing, and exposure to microorganisms and plants. As the weathering progresses, the dredged material develops structure that enhances air, water, and root penetration. Tillage will accelerate this process. We have conducted a series of experiments and demonstration projects, a few of which are summarized below, that indicate that this scenario is generally true for Peoria Lake sediments.

Greenhouse experiment

A greenhouse experiment was designed to test plant growth in sediment. The sediment samples included Peoria Lake sediments, and slightly weathered sediment from a constructed island in the river located slightly upstream from Peoria Lake. A good quality, natural Illinois topsoil known as Drummer was used as a reference soil. Plants grown were snap bean, tomato, lettuce, barley, and radish.

The agronomic properties of the sediments and the highly fertile Drummer topsoil were similar. They were all fine-silty textured indicating that the sediment would have high plant-available soil moisture storage similar to the natural topsoil. Soil fertility was high in all the materials (Table 2). Cation exchange capacity (CEC) ranged from 20 to 42 meq 100 g−1 with the sediments having higher CEC. The sediment pH was also relatively high. Organic matter contents were also similar (2.6–2.9%), with the topsoil having slightly higher contents. Extractable nutrients were also similar in the materials, but generally higher in the sediments. Extractable Ca in particular is higher in sediments than in natural top soils because of the presence of shells and other biogenic calcareous materials. Before putting the materials in the greenhouse pots, the soil and sediments were dried and then ground to break up the large clods. Horticultural perlite was added to the materials as is common with greenhouse potting media.

Soil fertility analyses of materials used in the greenhouse experiment.

Table 2.
Soil fertility analyses of materials used in the greenhouse experiment.
    Extractable (mg kg−1
Material CEC1 meq 100 g−1 pH OM1, % Mg Ca Na 
Natural topsoil 20 6.4 2.9 13 137 616 2758 26 
Fresh sediment 42 7.5 2.6 35 164 729 7020 73 
Aged sediment 38 7.5 2.7 74 123 688 6390 77 
1CEC = cation exchange capacity, OM = organic matter. 
    Extractable (mg kg−1
Material CEC1 meq 100 g−1 pH OM1, % Mg Ca Na 
Natural topsoil 20 6.4 2.9 13 137 616 2758 26 
Fresh sediment 42 7.5 2.6 35 164 729 7020 73 
Aged sediment 38 7.5 2.7 74 123 688 6390 77 
1CEC = cation exchange capacity, OM = organic matter. 

Plant growth and yields were similar for sediments and topsoil (Table 3). In addition, heavy metal uptake was not particularly greater in the plants grown in sediments as compared to the natural topsoil grown plants. This experiment demonstrated that Peoria Lake sediment can serve as high quality topsoil, and that excess uptake of heavy metals was not a concern.

Yield of plants grown in dredged sediments and a reference topsoil. Mean mass (g) per 12 pots. Values followed by a different letter in a column are significantly different. All soil materials included perlite admixed, except barley was grown in an additional separate set of pots without added perlite.

Table 3.
Yield of plants grown in dredged sediments and a reference topsoil. Mean mass (g) per 12 pots. Values followed by a different letter in a column are significantly different. All soil materials included perlite admixed, except barley was grown in an additional separate set of pots without added perlite.
Material Barley Lettuce Snap Beans Tomatoes Radishes 
Topsoil 0.7 ± 0.1 1.3 ± 0.4a 4.1 ± 0.7 40.1 ± 8.9b 2.6 ± 0.4 
Fresh sediment 0.7 ± 0.2 0.7 ± 0.3b 4.6 ± 0.6 48.7 ± 9.9a 2.7 ± 0.3 
Weathered sediment 0.7 ± 0.2 1.4 ± 0.4a 4.3 ± 0.6 42.0 ± 8.4ab 2.9 ± 0.3 
Material Barley Lettuce Snap Beans Tomatoes Radishes 
Topsoil 0.7 ± 0.1 1.3 ± 0.4a 4.1 ± 0.7 40.1 ± 8.9b 2.6 ± 0.4 
Fresh sediment 0.7 ± 0.2 0.7 ± 0.3b 4.6 ± 0.6 48.7 ± 9.9a 2.7 ± 0.3 
Weathered sediment 0.7 ± 0.2 1.4 ± 0.4a 4.3 ± 0.6 42.0 ± 8.4ab 2.9 ± 0.3 

Demonstration projects

In May of 2000, freshly dredged Peoria Lake sediment was placed on a field in East Peoria, IL. The underlying material was compacted rubble from demolition of a power plant including concrete, gravel, coal, and sand, that is, material generally unsuitable for supporting most vegetation. The freshly-placed sediment was semi-solid and upon drying, the sediment initially set up like concrete, with hard chunks separated by shrinkage cracks. After the sediment dried, the area was graded to level it and to break the surface of the hardened sediment. Sediment thickness ranged from 15 to 40 cm and averaged 25 cm. By late November 2001 the site supported a continuous stand of grass and other weedy vegetation, and medium and fine blocky soil structure was found to a depth of about 23 cm. In December 2002, soil structure was more evident throughout the sediment and roots were found on the soil ped faces down to contact with the underlying materials. Small insects and other soil-dwelling fauna were also found on the ped surfaces demonstrating that a soil ecosystem had become established. Consequently, the soil formation process was rapid, with soil structure development throughout the full 25 cm depth within a few years.

In a second demonstration project Peoria Lake sediment was dumped into a gravel pit near Peoria within a day after dredging in May 2000. The wet sediment was over 8 meters deep in some places. By October 2002 there was abundant volunteer vegetation on the sediment including cottonwood and willow trees up to 8–10 feet tall. A soil profile was exposed to determine the physical characteristics of the sediment. The upper 20 cm of the sediment was friable with granular soil structure and abundant live roots. From 20 to 50 cm below the surface, the soil was angular blocky with abundant roots on the ped faces. From 50–110 cm, the soil structure was prismatic with roots covering the ped faces. Below that depth to 140 cm, the soil structure was massive and roots were scarce. Below 140 cm to the bottom of the exposure (about 200 cm), the sediment was increasingly moist and plastic with no roots or signs of oxidation. The material was very moist and plastic below that depth as evidenced from probes taken to 400 cm. In short, a deep anoxic and plastic sediment layer developed soil structure to about one meter depth in less than three years, complete with abundant vegetation. This is further evidence of the speed in which natural weathering processes transform these sediments into well structured, fertile soil.

Conclusions

Excess sedimentation is a primary cause of ecosystem degradation along the Illinois River waterway, and any restoration efforts will require detailed knowledge of both sediment quantity and quality. In addition, beneficial reuse strategies must be identified, tested and implemented where removal of sediments with acceptable levels of contamination is contemplated. Our efforts towards these ends suggest that below the Chicago metropolitan area, beneficial reuse of sediments is a viable option since sediment contaminants are generally below levels of regulatory concern, and weathering processes transform sediments into productive soils within a few years time. However, further study of sediment quality and quantity along the Illinois River is necessary in support and anticipation of restoration efforts. These studies should include the impacts of sediment chemistry on the reestablishment of desirable aquatic biota following any specific restoration efforts.

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