Know your Watershed

What’s a Watershed?

As we travel around our neighborhood and surrounding areas, we think about streets, friends, work places, stores, gas stations and maybe hills, forest preserves and other natural features. But most of us don’t think about our watershed.

Thinking in terms of watersheds adds a whole new dimension to the world around us, and adds fun to almost any trip, whether by car, bike or foot.

There are about as many ways to describe a watershed as there are watersheds themselves. Try Googling “What is a watershed?”

The USEPA has a good way of saying it:

A watershed is the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off of it goes into the same place. John Wesley Powell, scientist geographer, put it best when he said that a watershed is:

“that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”

Watersheds come in all shapes and sizes. They cross county, state, and national boundaries. In the continental U.S., there are 2,110 watersheds according to one USEPA accounting, but those are of major rivers. Since the Hickory Creek Watershed covers about 107 square miles, and the continental U.S. covers 3.1 million square miles, there could be as many as 29,000 watersheds with streams the size of Hickory Creek.

The Hickory Creek Watershed

There are over 100 miles of streams in the Watershed. Hickory Creek and its major tributaries – Spring Creek, Marley Creek and Union Ditch – flow through Tinley Park, Orland Park, Frankfort, Frankfort Square, Mokena, Homer Glen, New Lenox and Joliet. But Hickory Creek tributaries also drain corners of University Park, Richton Park, Matteson, Country Club Hills and Lockport, so they are part of the Watershed, too. After leaving Joliet, Hickory Creek waters enter the Des Plaines River, on to the Illinois River, the Mississippi River, and finally out to the Gulf of Mexico.

The watershed boundaries were formed as the last glacier disappeared about 12,000 years ago. At Palos Community Hospital on 153rd Street, you can look south far into the Watershed. On the north side of the boundary, the runoff goes into Long Run Creek, which flows west to the Des Plaines River.

In Tinley Park, the boundary is less dramatic, but where the Metra tracks cross Oak Park Avenue the boundary is actually the Continental Divide. Drainage north of the tracks flows toward Midlothian Creek at 172nd Street and then into the Cal Sag Channel. Before the Chicago River system was reversed, this water entered Lake Michigan and ended up in the Atlantic Ocean. South of the Metra tracks, water drains toward Union Ditch, then into Hickory Creek.

Another dramatic view of the Continental Divide is near where Cicero Avenue meets Governors Highway. From one of the nearby hills, you can see west down the Hickory Creek Watershed toward Joliet. To the east, Governors State University is in the Thorn Creek, and the Great Lakes, Watershed.

There are a variety of exciting and sometimes surprising points of interest in the watershed. Check out the online Hickory Creek Story Map.

Download the Hickory Creek Watershed brochure to discover some of these points of interest for yourself.  We will be adding more points of interest all the time as friends and neighbors suggest them, so check back in for updates.