After the flood

The Water Issue - Construction

Plagued by too much water, the Oak Meadows Golf Preserve renovation focused on linking the course more intimately to environmental improvements, making the entire preserve more sustainable, beautiful and engaging.

July 15, 2014

Oak Meadows Golf Course in Addison, Ill., lies within the Salt Creek watershed in eastern DuPage County 15 miles west of Chicago. It contains wetlands, ponds, prairies, old-growth oak-hickory forest and a stretch of Salt Creek. Salt Creek is a meandering oxbow stream that runs from north to south through the forest preserve. On the west side, low-slung, open countryside sweeps down to the creek, and residual stream pockets dot the floodplain. The east shoreline is heavily populated with oaks and hickories and rises quickly from the creek bank.

Golf course architect C.D. Wagstaff built the golf course in the early 1920s. At the time, it was the stylish and prominent Elmhurst Country Club, which featured an expansive Tudor-style clubhouse and traditional “parkland” layout. It became part of golfing history in 1941 when Ben Hogan, one of the game’s greatest, won the Chicago Open at the club. However, after years of declining membership and decreasing profits, the owners were forced to sell in 1985.

A highly maintained, turf-based, for-profit golf course may not seem to fit within an agency founded on conservation. But the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has a stated mission to “acquire and hold lands… for the education, pleasure and recreation of its citizens.” As such, over 100,000 golfers enjoy the district’s three courses each year, just as visitors enjoy its off-leash dog areas, archery ranges, model airfields and campgrounds. For many golfers, the courses serve as a key introduction to the greater forest preserve system.

But Oak Meadows is at a crossroads. Fire destroyed the clubhouse in 2009, and commercial and residential development upstream has increased the volume and intensity of floodwaters from Salt Creek. Over the past few years, grounds maintenance practices have been reduced to “reaction and restoration,” and operational and maintenance stresses from increasing floods, continued market pressures and playability issues have compelled the Forest Preserve District to review potential improvements for this facility.

“For decades, Oak Meadows acted as a ‘for-profit’ golf enterprise that also provided valuable stormwater retention for area residents,” says Ed Stevenson, director of golf enterprises for The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. “But the ability to run a successful golf business suffers greatly every time the property floods, which now happens more often.”

As a result, the district decided to create a plan that would re-establish Oak Meadows as one of the finest public golf facilities in northern Illinois while measurably improving ecosystems within the 288-acre forest preserve, reviewing opportunities to improve Salt Creek, and expanding stormwater-storage benefits for the surrounding community.

Martin Design worked closely with The Forest Preserve District Planning Office to complete a master plan that would meet or exceed the defined goals. It presented the plan to the Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners for approval in the fall of 2012.

The master plan phase was followed by a subsequent “concept verification phase” that substantiated the plan concepts, project benefits, construction costs and scheduling outlined in the master plan. After concept verification provided evidence of the master plan, design detail and feature planning proceeded in hopes of meeting a summer 2015 construction start.

The subsequent analysis began to reveal the issues confronting the forest preserve. A preserve improvement like this involves numerous permitting agencies and stakeholders. The permit process is intense, involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, DuPage County Highway Department, DuPage County Department of Environmental Concerns, City of Wood Dale, Village of Addison, Kane DuPage Soil and Water Conservation District and the DuPage River Salt Creek Work Group.

During the planning and design phases, it was evident that the Forest Preserve District was intent on comprehensive and wide-ranging improvements for the property.

The vision for Oak Meadows rejected the assumption that improving golf amenities requires sacrificing the property. Instead, the Oak Meadows’ plan encourages the property to expand and improve habitat and hold more floodwater while providing more sustainable, flood-resistant golf operations.

A better experience

While this site is engaging, it is deteriorated. Virgin and ancient landscape features are evident, but cultural pressures, decades of intense maintenance, increasing golfer expectations, and suburban stresses have obscured or eroded its beauty. Most noticeably, extensive tree planting obstructs views and creates canyons for golf corridors. Recent stream bank stabilization has braced the edges with little nuance, variety or habitat diversity.

The plan calls for Oak Meadows to explore and expose a wonderful landscape, to create an experience that allows the golfer to progress through the site gracefully, peacefully and thoughtfully while restoring and then exposing the simple dignity of this complex ecosystem. An effort was made to ensure the character of the historical Elmhurst Country Club remained apparent. Portions of the original routing were kept to honor the club’s past.

Plan Development

In 2011, the District submitted a nationwide request for qualifications from golf course architects to investigate the feasibility of its comprehensive and wide-ranging goals for Oak Meadows. Those include:

  • Maintain or increase on-site stormwater storage capacity
  • Create new wetlands and improve the overall environmental quality of the forest preserve
  • Redesign the course to make fairways, tees and greens less vulnerable to flood damage
  • Protect and increase golf revenues by reducing interruptions due to floods
  • Reduce long-term maintenance costs and increase “greener” maintenance practices
  • Identify the location and needs of a new clubhouse based on changes to the course

After a substantial nation-wide search, the District selected Martin Design Partnership Ltd., which assembled a team of golf course architects, architectural historians, civil and environmental engineers, biologists and hydrologists to develop a plan for Oak Meadows and to determine costs and alternatives.

The new design will offer a 7,100-yard par-72 course And rather than resist Mother Nature, it will complement and support flood events. The plan keeps portions of the original Elmhurst Country Club routing, but features a compelling assortment of new holes. The routing will provide a variety of uphill, downhill holes; some will cross or parallel Salt Creek, or ramble through wetlands, or jump from hillside to hillside; some will be open, others, framed by oak-hickory forest. Ultimately, the site will encourage golfers of all abilities to participate and enjoy the course.

Oak Meadows, first and foremost, needs to appeal and to satisfy a variety of golfer interests. The greater goal is to establish a unique sense of place. By linking the golf course more intimately to a high- functioning environment, golfers will be more engaged and surrounding communities will benefit.

Oak Meadows accommodates the public as a golf course and a preserve. The purpose is to develop a course that respects the landscape, allowing the game to be played while revealing the environment, its history and restoring its vital function.

Improving stormwater-management features

Prior to its purchase of Oak Meadows, the Forest Preserve District had concentrated on acquiring new open space to offset fast-paced development. Now, with fewer options for new acquisitions, its focus has shifted to improving the functions of existing properties. The district is using the course redesign to provide stormwater-storage potential for the entire preserve.

“At face value, it was assumed that any efforts to protect the golf operation from the impacts of flooding would simultaneously reduce the property’s usefulness for stormwater management,” Stevenson says. “But the master plan for Oak Meadows was born out of a desire to challenge this assumption to produce a more fully enduring golf property for both recreation and preserve function.”

This typical suburban stream is the epicenter of faster moving stormwater surges. As an urban stream, Salt Creek has many of the characteristic associated problems. Early attempts at stream manipulation by Elmhurst Country Club included construction of flood control berms adjacent to Salt Creek to limit the creek’s ability to access its floodplain during smaller storms. Additionally, natural stream bank vegetation was replaced with turfgrass when the course was developed in the 1920s. Turfgrass area expanded and the shallow turf roots allowed the creek to erode into the banks. Also, a tributary to the north of Salt Creek was completely redirected and piped south, providing little functioning pollutant removal or habitat value.

Because there is a 1.5:1 volume mitigation minimum requirement for fills within the Salt Creek floodplain, the design team scrutinized cuts and fills within that area. As a result, the project provides more than 30 acre-feet of floodwater-storage – over 10 million gallons – through hole realignments and engineering.

Additionally, bank improvements will allow water from Salt Creek to inundate the surrounding preserve much sooner during a storm, which means the preserve will be able to improve the creek’s overall water elevations by approximately 6 inches for a 10-year rain event. New floodplain terraces along the banks with vegetative hummocks and hollows will increase the residence time of runoff, as well.

“In general, this project offers an opportunity to create a significant stormwater benefit in a highly developed area of DuPage County that is typically difficult to achieve while at the same time providing a benefit to the golfing and recreational community,” says John Mayer, a civil engineer with Engineering Resource Associates.


In 2007, 2009 and 2012, the DuPage River Salt Creek Workgroup monitored points along the creek’s watershed, which encompasses 152 square miles of urbanized land in western Cook and eastern DuPage counties and includes the creek’s 42-linear-mile main stem. The group selected several locations to set baseline conditions. Results showed degraded aquatic communities throughout the waterway. Further statistical analysis revealed that poor habitat explained the majority of the degradation. The area behind the low-head dam at Oak Meadows in particular suffers from low levels of dissolved oxygen.

Workgroup surveys in 2007, 2009 and 2013 measured Salt Creek’s Index for Biotic Integrity [IBI], a metric that quantitatively assesses the composition of biologic communities. The statistical analysis helps illustrate the complexity of an ecosystem by measuring the range of plant, animal and invertebrate diversity. Along the stretch of Salt Creek that flowed through Oak Meadows, results showed the waterway contained a poor diversity of native fish and aquatic insects. Decreasing levels of dissolved oxygen and increasing levels of suspended sediment negatively affect the fish and macro-invertebrates that inhabit the waterway. In short, Salt Creek has developed into a hostile environment for aquatic organisms.

Early attempts to stabilize the shoreline and prevent flooding did little to slow erosion. Constructed berms only helped to keep receding floodwater from re-entering Salt Creek, aggravating flood damage to the golf course. Within the channel there is little to no variation in water depth or velocities. Off-channel wetlands, tree cover and necessary backwater pooling is non-existent and two small dams block the upstream passage of fish. The lack of variation of water depth, water speed and little backwater shelter limited any opportunity to maintain or increase fish and insect populations, the central goal of the Clean Water Act.

Working closely with Interfluve Inc., the Oak Meadows design team has outlined a plan that will improve stream hydraulics, water quality, sediment migration, backwater habitat and biological diversity.

Wetland expansion and native restoration

The project improvement calls for extensive habitat expansion, including the restoration of nearly 67 acres of riparian, prairie, savanna and woodland terrain. “This will provide a needed transition area between the creek, wetlands and upland areas and areas that will be used for active recreation,” says Erin Pande, ecological services director for ERA. “The native plantings associated with the wetland creation and upland enhancement components of the project will be crucial in providing these benefits. Bank erosion will be slowed and stormwater runoff will be slowed by deep-rooted native vegetation and naturally treated through containment and filtration prior to entering Salt Creek.”

The proposed plan involves the removal of non-native invasive vegetation along the banks of Salt Creek and cutting back the incised banks to allow the river to access the floodplain areas. The banks will be modified to create a floodplain terrace. Hummocks and hollows will be created within these areas to increase the residence time of stormwater runoff and create complex habitats through interspersion of wetland and riparian vegetation. The net effect is the addition of nearly 33 acres of wetland.

In-Stream Improvements

Salt Creek is the epicenter of a fast-moving stormwater-removal system. Over the years, landowners have attempted to address flooding problems associated with that system.

Salt Creek has been channelized, deepened and straightened to prevent floodwaters from overflowing into the surrounding land, but high-velocity waters trapped inside the channel eroded the banks. The replacement of streamside vegetation with turfgrass further weakened the banks. To stabilize the shoreline, structural solutions were installed. While these methods stabilize the banks, they do not deal with existing biological issues.

Regulations require municipal wastewater treatment plants to make necessary upgrades to improve levels of dissolved oxygen. To increase levels, the municipality of Wood Dale suggested modifying the dams at Oak Meadows. As early as 2008, studies identified the removal of the dams as cost-effective ways to improve water. The modifications will require approval from the Illinois EPA and continued monitoring to ensure levels of dissolved oxygen increase.

Working closely with Inter-Fluve Inc., the team devised a plan to improve the function of the stream channel to more historical locations and function. Early analysis revealed how the increased frequency and magnitude of urban runoff had changed the channel, disconnected it from the floodplain and created a stream largely devoid of habitat. To improve this, the dams will be removed and the channel narrowed to develop greater water variation and sediment continuity, as well as to allow flood water to spill onto the floodplain with greater frequency. The narrow channel will allow “pool and run” areas to develop and persist. In-channel habitat will include varied gravels and boulders as well as large wood all to promote species habitat.

Part of the Oak Meadows plan includes modifying the Salt Creek’s center flow line. This combined with additional flood attenuation and reconstruction of the banks with bioengineering soil stabilization methods will improve the bank structure and improve pollution assimilation and water quality. The methods will include surface fabric bank treatments and fabric-encapsulated soil [FES] lifts with log-rock toes installed at and below the water line to provide scour protection at sensitive river bank areas.

These treatments will allow vegetation to take on the work of stabilizing the stream banks as they did historically. This “softening” of the stream and floodplain interface has added benefits for both water quality and habitat. The small tributary to Salt Creek will be re-meandered to its pre-existing 1939 location. The combination of these practices will reduce nutrient and total suspended solid [TSS] loads.

“Complexity fosters biological diversity, one of the key design goals of the project,” says Stephen McCracken, Dupage River Salt Creek Workgroup and The Conservation Foundation. “A healthy system is a complex system and can accommodate a variety of changing conditions inherent in urban streams. Further, these small grade control devices will reestablish natural sediment transport through the system and allow water levels upstream to fluctuate under natural seasonal conditions.”

These improvements will create cover for fish and haul-out locations for turtles, induce local scouring, and create a more heterogeneous stream bed. As part of this phase, a small tributary north of Salt Creek will return to its 1939 meander, providing improved habitat and reduced total suspended solids.

Streambank, side channel and floodplain wetlands will add diversity as well as needed flood refugia for aquatic species living in the flash flood regime of this ultra-urban stream. Modifications will foster flood energy to dissipate across the floodplain. The frequent inundation of this surface will drive improvements in biological function and the connection between the channel and floodplain interface.

Project Monitoring

atershed-wide monitoring by the DuPage River Salt Creek Workgroup (DRSCW) in 2007, 2009 and 2012 had shown aquatic communities to be degraded throughout the watershed. Statistical analysis these communities distribution revealed that poor habitat throughout the basin explained the majority of that degradation. The watershed-monitoring program included a number of locations at the site allowing a baseline condition to be set. Initial monitoring and analysis of Salt Creek identified that the area behind the dam at the southern portion of the property, suffered from low levels of dissolved oxygen (DO).

Recent regulation has required upgrades to existing municipal wastewater treatment plants to improve Dissolved Oxygen (DO) levels. The municipality of Wood Dale, suggested an interim solution that included removal of the dam. This initial step required State environmental protection agency (IEPA) approval with a condition of monitoring and review. The dam will be removed as part of the improvements to the stream channel and monitoring will continue to ensure DO levels are increased.

This continued monitoring is vital. Post project review and analysis will illustrate the positive effect of habitat formation on water quality. DRSCW will continue to conduct monitoring of DO, fish and insects at the site to evaluate water quality and ecological impacts of the improvements.

The IBI statistical analysis, usually in impaired waters, illustrates the complexity of an ecosystem by measuring the range of plant, animal and invertebrate diversity. The success of the river restoration plan will be judged by improvements in aquatic biology and visual aesthetics.

DRSCW surveys in 2007, 2009 and 2013 show the site to have poor fish and insect populations. The actions under the river restoration plan have been carefully chosen to improve conditions for a more diverse, native river fish and insect population. Hosting those populations will help the surface water management agencies on Salt Creek meet their obligations under the Clean Water Act.


Gregory E. Martin is the president of Martin Design Partnership based in Batavia, Ill.