SHABBONA – A small pond where fish are raised before being hand-released into Shabbona Lake was nothing more than a mud pit on Wednesday, but by this time next year, thousands of fish will be growing in deeper, cleaner waters.
A crew of six men – four of whom are tribal members of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, a Kansas-based American Indian tribe – arrived in Shabbona this week to dredge the 5-acre pond, which is adjacent to Shabbona Lake.
Clearing out the sediment will deepen the pond, thus improving the survival rate of smallmouth bass raised there. In shallow waters, young fish can be easily snatched by birds of prey, Shabbona Lake State Park Superintendent Kerry Novak said from the work site Wednesday.
“Shabbona Lake is the most heavily fished lake (among all Illinois Department of Natural Resources lakes) on a per-acre basis,” Novak said.
“We have to keep the quality of the fish up.”
The Potawatomi have teamed up with the state because the tribe has a special interest in the community, said Aaron Chambers, a spokesman for the tribe.
“It’s government-to-government relations,” added Tim Ramirez, director of the tribe’s public works department, which led the project.
“We heard that the last governor cut the budget so bad, and went for the state parks first.”
In addition to clearing sediment, the crew installed a new drain valve and pipe that will allow water – and fish – to drain from the pond to the lake more efficiently, Novak said.
The Potawatomi donated all labor and equipment for the project, while the state paid for the new valve and pipe.
“The amount of money they’ve saved the state and the taxpayers, I can’t even imagine,” Novak said.
While the public works department mainly works on maintaining roads and bridges within the Kansas reservation, they traveled over 500 miles to Shabbona because of the long history in this area and the proximity of tribal-owned land to the state park.
The land, on University Road, was purchased in 2006 with plans to build a government center and an electronic bingo parlor. But in order to operate the bingo facility, the tribe would have to get a declaration from the federal government that the land is a reservation, a decision that has not yet been reached.
In June, the Potawatomi seeded 125 acres of that land with prairie grass to return it to its native state.
Though they’re on separate soils, the projects on the Potawatomi land and at the state park greatly intertwine: Much of the water flowing above ground to Shabbona Lake flows through the reservation, and the prairie grass helps to reduce runoff of sediment and pollution that would otherwise wash into the lake, Chambers explained.