Thursday, April 09, 2009

From the Boneyard Creek Community Day to the Gulf of Mexico

From the Boneyard Creek Community Day to the Gulf of Mexico

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If you were to launch your kayak in the Boneyard Creek on the University of Illinois campus and paddle downstream until you hit the Gulf of Mexico, you would travel roughly 1,400 miles on the water. From the Boneyard you would take the Saline Branch to the Salt Fork on into the main stem of the Vermilion River, which would lead you to the mighty Mississippi by way of the Wabash, and the Ohio. That’s a long trip in a small boat, and not one that any of us is likely to undertake. But it could be done. My point in imagining it is to emphasize the fact that our waterways, even the very small ones, connect us directly with the all the waters of the wider world.

Unfortunately for the Gulf of Mexico, that connection brings pollution from rivers that drain most of the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. That pollution causes the notorious dead zone in the Gulf, which last year encompassed an area of more than 8,000 square miles, almost the size of New Jersey.

According to a report issued recently by the United States Geological Survey, Illinois is responsible for a large share of pollution in the Gulf. (The report is not written for a general audience, but it is available online at than one third of the top 150 polluting watersheds in the Mississippi River Basin are located in the Prairie State. The watershed containing Chicago is identified as the worst single contributor to the problem, but in overall terms agricultural watersheds are responsible for the greatest share of the nutrient pollution emanating from Illinois.

Glynnis Collins, Executive Director of Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network, says the US Geological Survey’s findings demonstrate the need for better enforcement of regulations requiring sewage treatment plants to clean up their discharge. But Collins emphasizes that the Survey’s findings also show a great need for farm programs that encourage less polluting practices in agriculture.

In the face of problems as large as the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone you might be tempted never to stick a toe in the water at all. But if citizens of Illinois—whose activities are a significant cause of the problem—are not engaged, then there is little hope that the issue will ever be resolved. So try this.

Start the movement toward a healthier Gulf of Mexico right at the point where my imaginary kayak journey began, where the Boneyard Creek flows through the Engineering quad on the U of I campus. That’s where this year’s Boneyard Creek Community Day, which will take place on Saturday, April 18th, will be centered. [Photo: Volunteers at last year's BCCD remove trash from the creek at Scott Park in Champaign.] Volunteers participating in the community day will be able to choose from a number of activities to promote a healthier creek, from picking up trash, to marking storm drains, to helping naturalize the banks by removing invasive plants and planting native species.

Full details about this event are available on the Web at

While the activities of the Boneyard Creek Community day will benefit us locally, they won’t go far resolve the problem of nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. But if these activities lead people to the greater political engagement that does resolve larger challenges, then that’s a start.

Thanks today to Drew Phillips of the Illinois State Geological Survey for calculating the river distance from the U of I to the Gulf of Mexico.