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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Native landscaping provides multiple benefits

We appreciate native plants and trees. These valuable forms of green infrastructure help absorb rainwater. This reduces the chances of flooding and protects our water quality. Below the surface, native plants grow an extensive root system that holds the soil in place, supports other plants, prevents erosion, and provides extra filtration to absorb  stormwater and slow the flow of water that can flood our communities and yards.

Practicing what we preach

At the MWRD, we not only promote the use of native plants throughout the communities we serve. We also take advantage of the land we own to plant them on our properties. Between seven water reclamation plants (WRP) and 23 pumping stations, the MWRD has significant ground to manage. In 2003, we realized we could retain more stormwater on this land while improving water quality. We began converting more than 31 acres of conventional turf grass into native prairie landscaping (NPL) on the grounds of our water reclamation plants. From there, it has grown and expanded along streambanks, near facilities and our reservoirs.

Native plants along the Egan Native Prairie Trail

Benefits of native landscaping

Today, the MWRD has more than 50 acres of NPL, including more than 23 acres of milkweed that support the monarch butterfly population. By the end of the summer season, the ground has retained the seeds, which have already fallen for next spring, continuing a sustainable cycle of plant life. 

The NPL demonstrates responsible land stewardship in a variety of ways:

  • It reduces the long-term cost of grounds maintenance.
  • It absorbs more stormwater.
  • It increases diverse plant and wildlife habitat.
  • It captures carbon. 
  • It provides natural beauty.
Native plants at the Egan WRP

Maintaining our native prairie

The prairie requires less maintenance than grass, but by the end of the growing season, we manage the NPL uniquely. Since 2019, the MWRD has enlisted the services of goats and sheep for vegetation control on our grounds and amid the NPL.

Sheep and goats

The herd maintains the NPL and trims overgrowth and invasive species as well. In between naps, the herd will graze on dozens of acres of shrubs, plants and other overgrowth, with each animal clearing at least 250 square feet of vegetation daily. This hungry bunch provides an environmental alternative to maintain the ground by reducing our reliance on herbicides and fuel to power mowers. It is also a more cost-effective solution compared to other alternatives.

A sheep/goat chewing on grasses in an open field


Prescribed burns

Other options exist for the additional ground the sheep and goats cannot cover. We also manage our NPL through prescribed burns. The burn helps release nutrients into the soil to encourage growth for the following spring. It also eliminates the woody plants and weeds with shallow roots, leaving the native prairie and deep-rooted grasses to thrive in the post-burn season. Licensed personnel following local and state regulations conduct the prescribed burns in late fall or early spring when the thatch is dry, when wind conditions are safe and only until after neighboring property owners are notified.

A controlled burn in the NPL at Stickney WRP


Grow native plants and save the monarchs

Among the native plants is an abundance of milkweed that we planted to assist the monarch butterfly population, which has declined due to habitat loss and climate change, resulting from development, poor land management practices, illegal logging and heavy reliance on pesticides and herbicides in the United States. For our efforts, we have earned national monarch waystation certification at four water reclamation plants. We have also distributed nearly 27,000 milkweed seed packets to Cook County residents. Take the pledge to help save the monarchs.

A monarch butterfly on a cluster of pink milkweed flowers


Restore the canopy, plant a tree and protect the water environment

The MWRD introduced the Restore the Canopy initiative in 2016 to empower residents of Cook County with an opportunity to restore the region’s depleted tree canopy. Since launching the program in April through October 2016, we have created new partnerships with municipalities across Cook County and dozens of schools and community groups to distribute more than 100,000 free tree saplings to restore the canopy. Learn more about the Restore the Canopy program.

A sign saying Free Trees Today on the ground next to a group of potted oak tree saplings


Plant native wildflowers, protect the pollinators

Beyond monarchs, there are opportunities to support all pollinators through the growth of native plants. In 2023, we launched a new program encouraging Cook County residents to plant native wildflowers. Pollinator species play an essential role in agriculture, forests and grasslands, and by supporting native plant growth, we can also improve water quality. Residents can take a pledge and earn a packet of wildflower seeds.

A bumblebee on a bunch of yellow flowers