Thursday, September 19, 2013

Upcoming opportunities for education, action on water issues

Upcoming opportunities for education, action on water issues

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio | MP3 download

There’s nothing like a long, hot dry spell to draw attention to the critical role of water in our lives, especially for those of us continuing to nurse along vegetable gardens. A little further consideration provides a reminder that water also plays a key role in most of the ongoing environmental issues in central Illinois.

In DeWitt County, for example, citizens are waging a years-long battle to prevent a landfill from taking in soil laden with PCBs from a federally mandated cleanup in Chicago. Why? Because the landfill site overlays the Mahomet Aquifer, which supplies water for approximately 800,000 area residents.

In Vermilion and Champaign counties, citizens are fighting to prevent the incursion of a new coalmine. People in the immediate vicinity of the site oppose the loss of farmland and other environmental degradation associated with surface operations of a mine. But people from a broader circle are engaged in the effort over concerns about water. They question how the demand for water by the mine will affect supplies available for other uses. And they point out that pollution generated by mining would threaten the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River.

The Salt Fork may be known and loved by fewer people than the Middle Fork of the Vermilion, which runs through Kickapoo State Park. But both rivers provide excellent opportunities for recreation and critical habitat for wildlife. They’re the rivers where two species of federally endangered mussels were recently reintroduced.

[Photos: above, the author's wife enjoys paddling the Salt Fork; right, the Vermilion River system supports a rich diversity of mussels.]

Earlier this year, when the Champaign-Urbana Sanitary District agreed to supply water for a fertilizer factory proposed in Tuscola, it did so over the opposition of citizens who are concerned that cutting back the district’s clean discharge into the Saline Branch (a tributary of the Salt Fork) will degrade conditions for aquatic life there. (You may or may not remember it, but in a column last Fall I called attention to the dramatic rise of fish diversity in the Saline Branch found by a recent scientific survey.)

In terms of scale, it should be remembered, none of these impacts comes close to the current and potential future impacts of industrial agriculture. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, which covered an area the size of Connecticut this summer, begins with fertilizer pollution from fields in Illinois and other corn growing states. And no other potential demand for water from the Mahomet Aquifer compares to the potential demand represented by an expansion of agricultural irrigation in Champaign and surrounding counties.

I call attention to these issues not to bring you down, but to motivate you to take advantage of four opportunities for learning and action.

This Saturday, September 21, staff from Prairie Rivers Network will lead a bicycle tour of four residential rain gardens in Champaign. The “Rain Garden Ramble” will begin at the Prairie Rivers Network Office, 1902 Fox Drive, Suite G, Champaign, at 2:00 p.m. and is scheduled to last until 4:00. It is free and open to the public, but organizers ask that your register in advance via the following link so they know how many people to look for:

Also on Saturday, the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy will conduct a clean up on the Sangamon to celebrate “It’s Our River Day.” The clean up will be based at the Izaak Walton Cabin at Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve in Mahomet and begin at 8:30 a.m. Details and registration at

On Thursday, September 26, the Prairie Group of the Sierra Club will sponsor a panel discussion about water in Champaign County, “where it comes from, where it goes to, and how we can protect it along the way.” This event will take place at the Champaign Public Library and begin with a reception at 6:30 p.m. The panel discussion is slated for 7:00 to 8:30. Further details at

Beginning on October 6, the First Presbyterian Church of Urbana will conduct a six-week public seminar series titled, “Fresh Water Availability: Confronting the Immense Challenge.” These talks will be conducted by local experts and invite active participation. Topics will range from the availability of water globally to individual conservation in east central Illinois. They will take place from 10:45 to 11:30 a.m., in the Fellowship Hall, 602 West Green Street, Urbana. Further details at