Thursday, December 30, 2004

Building a Lasting University Environment (BLUE) Initiative

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Do you conserve energy at home? Do you limit use of your car to cut down on pollution and save gas? Do you pay attention to the amount of waste your household generates and make sure it’s disposed of properly?

Three cheers for you if you do. Many of us align ourselves with the larger goals of environmentalism by adopting some or all of these practices, and when such efforts are taken together they help keep our world liveable.

But think of the difference you could make if the power of your environmentally conscious decisions were multiplied by a factor of ten, or twenty, or even more. That will give you a sense of the impact administrators with the University of Illinois’ Facilities & Services are aiming for with an initiative called Building a Lasting University Environment, or BLUE for short.

The BLUE initiative may be most visible in the ten Global Electric Motorcars, or GEMs, that Facilities and Services bought last year to replace the scooters, pickups, and sedans used by various workers. Although the batteries that power these vehicles do require charging, the vehicles themselves produce no emissions and very little noise as they zip around campus. As an added bonus, it is estimated that each will save a thousand dollars in fuel costs over the course of its lifetime.

Some of the less visible aspects of the BLUE initiative may actually have much greater long-term “green” value. For example, the Division of Planning is working to incorporate sustainable design features in the College of Business’s instructional facility to be built starting in early 2006. The design team projects that these features--which include super energy-efficient windows, rooftop solar panels, extensive use of natural lighting and a finely tuned heating and cooling system--will reduce the facility’s energy use by 25 to 30 percent in comparison to a building with a more conventional design.

Another of the most ambitious BLUE efforts is the environmentally friendly renovation of one of the largest parking lots on campus. Work on lot F-23, at the intersection of Florida and South Lincoln, will be guided by UIUC engineering faculty and others. It is intended as a model and test site for measures to reduce the amount and environmental toxicity of parking lot runoff.

Other aspects of the BLUE initiative are as wide-ranging as the reach of Facilities and Services itself, which employs more than 1400 people on the UIUC campus. They include day-to-day efforts such as using more native species in campus landscaping, to larger scale projects, such as supporting the formation of a local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Of course energy-efficient buildings and eco-friendly parking lots don’t eliminate the need for individual conservation efforts or for environmental regulations that protect the public interest. But the leadership and employees of Facilities & Services at the U of I are to be applauded for doing their part to promote a sustainable campus.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Rebirth of the Boneyard Creek

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Late last April I got an excited e-mail from a friend telling me he’d been out after work with his fly rod and had found a little stream where he caught twenty fish before heading home for dinner. Now, before you write this off as a fisherman’s tall tale, I’ll admit on his behalf that none of the fish involved was bigger than your hand, nor were they trout or bass or any of the other species angling writers gush about. Except for a few striped shiners and a single grass pickerel they were all green sunfish, which are known primarily for their capacity to tolerate degraded aquatic conditions.

However lowly those fish, though, what really surprised me was the fact that my friend had caught anything at all, since the little stream he had discovered was in fact the Boneyard Creek.

Listeners whose familiarity with Champaign Urbana and the U of I campus goes back more than ten years may recall the Boneyard as the waterway that used to flood Campustown—a headache to business owners and civic officials, and a source of amusement for students who took advantage of the opportunity to canoe the intersection of Fourth and Green. Barring anything really out of the ordinary in local weather those days are gone, thanks to the recent completion of the first phase of a thirty-year plan worked out between the City of Champaign and the U of I in 1994.

As a result of that project, nearly all of the creek that was once visible between First and Wright Streets in Champaign now lies buried beneath a rather unprepossessing linear park.

The case is much different on the U of I engineering campus, however, where planners took into account environmental and aesthetic values as they reshaped the stream. Instead of burying it, they have drawn attention to it, incorporating features that give it a natural appearance and make it hospitable to aquatic life.

The retaining walls there are faced with block and natural stone rather than smooth concrete or corrugated metal. The channel is marked by some of the variation characteristic of free-flowing streams—deeper pools, shallow riffles, and even a few meanders. And all of this is complemented by landscaping that uses native plants to further the impression of a natural area. Most welcome of all, a person need not risk life or limb to get near the creek, thanks to grassy slopes that lead right to the water’s edge at a number of points.

And it’s not just low-rent anglers who have taken an interest in the Boneyard’s fish, which returned to the stretch of creek flowing through campus when a barrier downstream was removed as part of the reconstruction. In a report yet to be released, an undergraduate student from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has undertaken to assess the biological integrity of the creek by studying its fish community. The data she has collected would rank the Boneyard well below our area’s more pristine streams—say the Middle Fork and lower reaches of the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River—but well above the lifeless stretches where the Boneyard itself runs through a featureless concrete channel.

While there are some hard realities that will limit the Boneyard’s potential for recovery—most of its flow is constituted by urban runoff, and the channel must be maintained to move massive amounts of storm water—it’s nonetheless heartening to see this creek celebrated rather than buried on the U of I campus.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Poorly Designed Lighting Creates Light Pollution

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

The Northern Lights are a treat seldom experienced in east-central Illinois, but they made one of their rare appearances here earlier this fall. Unfortunately, many of us were prevented from seeing this spectacular show by the glow of our own artificial lights in the sky.

Sky glow, which obscures our view of the heavens at night, is the most commonly recognized effect of bad lighting, or light pollution.

But bad lighting also causes a number of other problems. It creates glare, which is light that shines in our eyes rather than on things we need to see, and light trespass, unwanted light that strays into our yards and windows. Bad lighting is also the source of what some call light clutter, the unappealing and visually confusing nighttime environment so common in modern cities.

Beyond its undesirable visual effects, bad lighting also wastes energy—a lot of it! One reasonable calculation puts the cost of wasted light in the U.S. at one billion dollars a year. The energy used to produce that wasted light would equal at least six million tons of coal, or twenty-three million barrels of oil.

Why is such waste so widely accepted? Because we’ve come to equate more light with better safety and security. But that is simply not the case. In fact, overly bright, misdirected light can actually do more harm than good. Light that shines in our eyes prevents us from seeing hazards as we walk or drive at night. Widely scattered, bright light also creates hard shadows, which can conceal criminals while making victims visible. Worst of all, excessive, poorly designed lighting can make us feel safe when we should actually be on guard.

The principles of good lighting are really pretty simple. Good lighting shines down, only where it is needed, rather than sideways, where it causes glare, or up, where it causes sky glow. Good lighting is bright enough to light only what needs to be illuminated, and does not create harsh transition zones between light and dark areas. Good lighting is also energy efficient and on only when it is needed.

It’s actually pretty easy to spot well-designed light fixtures once you know what to look for. They have the light source high, with a top and sides that direct light downward. It’s worth noting that you can illuminate even large areas such as parking lots and ball fields with such fixtures. The parking lots of the Champaign Public Library and Pages for All Ages Bookstore in Savoy are two good local examples.

In poorly designed fixtures the light source is not fully shielded, either on the sides or at the top. The worst offenders are drop-lens cobra fixtures—the ones that loom over our arterial streets in town and the lighted portions of many interstates. Most locales have a policy of replacing these as they wear out with far superior flat lens fixtures that shine light only where it’s supposed to go. Other poorly designed fixtures include the super bright barn light fixtures on found on power company poles, and decorative globes that shine light in all directions

You can do your part to reduce light pollution by replacing poorly designed fixtures on your property with well-designed ones. And remember as you do this that you’ll likely recover the cost of new fixtures with the money you save on electricity to operate them. If you want to go beyond that, check in with the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society or the U of I Astronomical Society concerning local efforts to promote dark skies.

With good lighting we’ve got nothing to lose, and an entire universe to gain.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Mahomet Aquifer, an Underappreciated Resource

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Do you know where your water comes from? Most of us don’t think twice about that, as long as the water flows when we turn on the faucet. But here in east-central Illinois many of us draw our water from the Mahomet aquifer, a largely under appreciated natural resource.

The aquifer is a layer of sand and gravel whose top lies between one and two hundred feet beneath the ground we walk on. It was deposited there in the valley carved into bedrock by the prehistoric Mahomet river more than five hundred thousand years ago. The clay-rich sediments that now cover the aquifer and constitute the ground as we know it were left by glaciers that later came down from the north and trapped the sand and gravel in the Mahomet bedrock valley. The aquifer holds more water than the finer soils above it because the coarser grains of sand and gravel leave more in-between space for water to fill.

Its great size is one of the remarkable characteristics of the Mahomet aquifer. It stretches about a hundred and twenty-five miles long, from its eastern edge north of Danville to its western edge near Peoria, and it’s typically from four to fourteen miles wide. The aquifer lies beneath 1.26 million acres and crosses the boundaries of fifteen counties, as well as many other political entities. Geologists calculate that the Mahomet aquifer holds about four trillion gallons of water, about the volume of water that flows past St. Louis in the Mississippi river every two and a half weeks.

The water in the Mahomet aquifer is of remarkably high quality. Most of it is between one thousand and twelve thousand years old, which means it fell as rain at a time before it could pick up the industrial pollutants and synthetic pesticides that plague our surface water today. Water from the aquifer is also free of bacteria harmful to humans, having been isolated from the sources of such organisms for so long.

The only contaminant that poses an immediate concern for users of the aquifer is arsenic, which occurs naturally at concentrations high enough to pose a risk to humans at various sites throughout the region. Municipal systems remove arsenic, but well users must test for it.

The most pressing question concerning the Mahomet aquifer is how much water we can pump from this remarkable resource without depleting it. The frustrating non-answer to that question is, we don’t know—not yet, anyway. In order to find that answer, we’ve got to fund more science.

Beyond the issue of identifying sustainable levels of withdrawal from the Mahomet aquifer, we will eventually need to grapple with the question of how that water is allocated. That’s a complicated question since aquifers don’t conform to political boundaries. But it’s also one best addressed before anyone’s well runs dry.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Environmentally Conscious Consumption

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

If you have wondered about the environmental impact of your consumer choices, but find yourself without the time or energy to pursue such issues, let me introduce you to the seven rules of responsible construction. I’ve adapted these from a book called The Consumer’s Guide to Environmental Choices, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The point of these rules is to help concerned citizens focus their attention on the things that really matter, and stop worrying about the things that don’t.

1. Pay special attention to major purchases. Our biggest impacts on the environment stem from our biggest decisions—how large a house we live in, how we heat and cool that house, whether we drive and what kind of vehicle we drive, whether we spring for energy-efficient major appliances. If you make environmentally sound choices on these questions you have already done most of your work.

2. Liberate yourself from anxiety about unimportant decisions. Every once in a while we become obsessed with small choices—cloth versus disposable diapers, paper versus plastic grocery bags, that sort of thing. In these cases it is possible to make distinctions based on the raw materials and energy used to produce items, or the problems associated with disposing of them. But there are always tradeoffs involved, and we’d do better to focus our attention on more important questions.

3. Pay attention to weight. If you’re unsure about the environmental impact a decision might have, think in terms of how heavy the product in question is. Other things being equal, weight’s a rough indicator of how much thought you should devote to the purchase or disposal of a product, and heavy things deserve more attention than light things.

4. Think Quantitatively. If you want to conserve water, start where you use the most. The average family of four can save more than two thousand gallons of water a month by running the washing machine only when it is full, and a comparable amount by installing a low-flow showerhead. Since these are the largest uses of water in the typical home, it makes sense to begin conservation measures with them.

5. Lead. If you can be the first person on your block to an exceptionally fuel-efficient vehicle, do it. If you can makeover your yard to eliminate the need for watering, pesticides and fertilizers, do that. Most people are open to learning about ways to help the environment.

6. Buy things that help the environment. When you choose to buy recycled products you help to maintain the market for recycled materials. When you buy things like water-saving faucets and showerheads you conserve and important resource for years to come.

7. Buy thoughtfully. We’re continually surrounded by messages to buy stuff—at this time of year more than ever. Yet when we give ourselves time to reflect, few of us believe that the possession of more stuff equates with a more meaningful life.