Thursday, December 29, 2005

Illinois Needs Updated Water Law

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It’s not unusual for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to receive calls from well-meaning citizens asking whom they should contact for a permit to take water out of a stream. The answer to this question might surprise you—it’s no one. Although there are highly developed state and federal regulations concerning what can be discharged into Illinois waterways, our state has only very old, very vague rules about taking water out of them.

According to Wayland Eheart, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the U of I, this lack of specific regulations spells trouble as the demand for surface water in our state grows. It both sets the stage for conflict among users of surface water, and threatens water quality, since the levels of pollutants allowed in wastewater discharges are calculated with reference to historical low streamflows.

The rule that applies now in Illinois is known as riparian doctrine. It allows those who own land adjoining a waterway to use a “reasonable” amount of water from it. What constitutes a reasonable amount? Riparian doctrine does not say. But in a future where the demand for surface water could outstrip supply, it would be terrible public policy to have such a fundamental question decided on a case-by-case basis in the courts.

Eheart offers the following scenario to illustrate how a shortage of surface water might come about in the not-so-distant future. Say this year’s drought is followed by another dry year, or two, or three. Under such circumstances, farmers who had not previously irrigated their crops might install irrigation equipment, which is very expensive. That means taking water from streams that are already under stress in times of severe drought. But it also creates an incentive to take water from streams even in times of moderate drought, since the highest cost associated with irrigation—buying the equipment—would already have been paid.

According to Eheart, a typical center-pivot irrigation rig covering a hundred sixty acres can consume water at roughly the same rate as a small town. This is because, by design, little of the water used for irrigation is returned to its source. In contrast, much of the water used by households and industry flows back into waterways after having been treated.

The state water withdrawal law Eheart envisions would avert conflicts between users by allocating each a percentage of the available flow in a stream, and establish priorities for types of water use in times of scarcity. Eheart emphasizes that such a law would protect all water users, including farmers. As he points out, there is nothing in current law that would prevent a factory upstream from putting a pipe into a river and effectively turning a downstream farmer’s irrigation equipment into idle scrap metal.

Eheart also envisions implementing a market for water withdrawal permits, which would allow farmers and industries needing more water to trade for permits with others needing less.

The complexities of developing new laws to govern the withdrawal of surface water in Illinois make it tempting to leave well enough alone. But if we want such laws to achieve a fair balance among the needs of all users and the needs of aquatic ecosystems, we would do well to get them enacted before conditions change for the worse.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Welcome Back, Otters!*

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Today I want to celebrate more than four thousand, six hundred reasons for conservation of rivers, lakes, and wetlands in Illinois. You see, four thousand, six hundred was the estimated population of river otters last year in areas where they had been reintroduced by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in the mid 1990s. That number led scientists to deem the river otter population “widespread and secure,” and to remove them from the list of “state threatened species.”

That’s a remarkable thing to be able to say about an animal with a history like that of the otter in our state.

At the time of European settlement, river otters were common throughout Illinois, but their numbers declined steeply during the nineteenth century, due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting and trapping. By the beginning of the twentieth century, sightings of river otters were rare, and when the species was listed as state endangered in 1989 it is estimated that there were fewer than a hundred river otters in Illinois.

How did we get from fewer than one hundred animals to more than forty-six hundred in just fifteen years? Conditions for rivers otters in Illinois had become favorable again even when numbers were at their lowest. Pollution in state waters had been greatly diminished thanks to the Clean Water Act, and that had allowed populations of fish, the otter’s main food, to rebound. In addition, beavers had come back in the state. Otters favor abandoned beaver dens for housing, preferring not to dig their own, and they also take advantage of the pools and wetlands beavers create for fishing.

Given these conditions, all the Department of Natural Resources had to do was just add otters. Between 1994 and 1997 a total of three hundred forty-six otters that had been trapped in Louisiana were released in appropriate habitat throughout Illinois. The current number of forty-six hundred otters indicates that these animals found everything they needed to make themselves at home. Besides multiplying so quickly, they have surprised biologists by taking up residence even in highly developed landscapes, including the Chicago area.

If you’re familiar with river otters, you know they are fascinating creatures. Strong, graceful swimmers, they are capable of remaining under water for three to four minutes, and traveling as much as a quarter of a mile in that time. In winter they bound through the snow and then slide on their bellies. Otters are also both curious and nearsighted, which is part of an adaptation that allows them to see well underwater, and which also explains why they sometimes come very near people and boats to investigate them.

The successful reintroduction of river otters in Illinois will allow more of us the opportunity to see them for ourselves in years to come, and that’s cause for celebration. But we should count this success as only one step on the road to the ecological recovery possible in our state.

*Credit an Illinois Department of Natural Resources Press Release for this title and the bad pun therein.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Urbana's Big Grove Oaks

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When we think about the landscape of central Illinois prior to European settlement we tend to think “prairie:" tall grasses and wild flowers adapted to life in unevenly drained soil subject to burning on a fairly regular basis.

And prairie is most of the story. But it is not the whole story.

Groves of trees intruded on the prairie here and there, especially on the eastern edges of rivers and streams, which created natural breaks to prairie fires driven by winds from the west.

Such groves were dominated by fire-resistant species of oak, and interspersed with hickory, ash, walnut, sugar maple and linden trees as well.

Prairie groves were quite hospitable to humans compared to the prairie itself, offering game, shelter, and respite from some of the discomforts of life in the open. They were preferred sites for Native American villages, and the first places to be settled by Americans of European descent coming from the east.

One of the largest of these timbered areas in our region was called by settlers of the early nineteenth century the Big Grove.

As it was mapped in the original survey of the area in 1821, the Big Grove covered about 10 square miles. Its western edge roughly paralleled the Saline Branch, the stream that drops into Urbana from the north and runs through Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park before turning east toward St. Joseph. Along its southern edge the Big Grove extended to about where Urbana’s Main Street runs today.

If you’re familiar with Urbana and the locales just north and east of the City, you know there’s no forest left that would merit the name, “Big Grove,” most of the wood from those trees having gone into houses, fences, farm implements and fires long ago.

But here’s the cool thing. Some trees that began life in the Big Grove still stand in Urbana today.

You can touch them. Heck, you can hug them. They’re the kind of trees that elicit that response from people.

Near the corner of East Main and Maple Streets, a Bur Oak that predates the Declaration of Independence rises more than eighty feet from the yard outside Long’s Garage. This tree’s limbs spread as wide as it is tall, which tells us that it grew up in a relatively open area, the meeting zone between woodland and prairie.

Farther from the center of town on East Main, a still larger Bur Oak can be seen on the eastern edge of the site of the Quaker Meetinghouse that was completed last year. We know this tree to be roughly two hundred forty years old now, based on calculations made in 1976, when the International Society of Arboriculture recognized it as a “bicentennial tree.”

The “bicentennial tree” and the oak at Long’s Garage are both commemorated with stone markers and plaques that were set up by the Urbana Tree Commission in 1976.

Greater numbers of oaks that predate European settlement can be seen—and hugged—at Urbana Park District sites. The oldest and largest trees in Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods are relics of the Big Grove, as are ten or so of the trees at Weaver Park, now being developed on East Main.

Special thanks for assistance with today’s piece to Bob Vaiden of the Illinois State Geological Survey, Derek Liebert of the Urbana Park District, and Mike Brunk, City Arborist for Urbana.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Batteries and the Environment

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You probably don’t give it much thought, but I bet you’re surrounded by batteries.

I’ve got one in the watch on my arm, and there’s one in the cell phone in my pocket. The computer has one to keep time when it’s shut down. My radio takes six of the big D cells to work when the power goes out, and there are at least ten batteries of various sizes in assorted flashlights around our house. There are 9-volts in the smoke detectors, and rechargeables in the cordless phones and power tools. And let me not even mention the batteries we have in toys.

There are old batteries in a jar waiting to be recycled, and new batteries in a drawer waiting to be used.

I enjoy the convenience of batteries. But like many other people, I am also concerned with the environmental consequences of using them. So this week, I did a little digging on that question. Here’s what I found.

Disposable household alkaline batteries, the ones we use most, have changed greatly for the better over the past twenty years. The biggest concern with earlier generations of these batteries was the mercury they contained, which could make its way into the environment if they were incinerated or wound up in a landfill. In response to public concern and subsequent legislation, manufacturers have reduced the use of mercury in disposable alkaline batteries by ninety-eight percent.

If you’ve ever wondered what good it does to express your concern about the environmental impact of consumer products, just take a look at the way some batteries are now marketed. I’ve got double A’s that boast “0% mercury and cadmium added” right on the side.

Although today’s alkaline batteries are far less harmful in landfills than their predecessors, it’s still preferable to recycle them when that’s possible. Unfortunately the only opportunity most of us have for recycling disposable alkalines is the occasional EPA hazardous waste collection day.

An even better option, from an environmental perspective, which also turns out to be cheaper in the long run, is to invest in rechargeable batteries to replace alkalines for household use.

In contrast to alkaline batteries, the Nickel-Cadmium, or ni-cad batteries in cordless phones and power tools are still full of materials that should never wind up in an incinerator or landfill. But thanks to the federal law known as the Battery Act of 1996, it is much more convenient to recycle them than it used to be. The Battery Act requires that ni-cad batteries be easily removable from the devices they power, and it also prompted manufacturers to set up a system for recycling ni-cad batteries.

When rechargeable ni-cad batteries die, it’s important not to throw them away, but rather to take them back to the store where they came from for recycling.

The same rule also applies for the little button type batteries in our lives, the ones in watches, hearing aids, and calculators, for example. These batteries ought to be recyclable through the businesses that sell them. When that’s not the case, it’s worth keeping them for an EPA hazardous waste collection day.

Is there life beyond replaceable batteries? It seems so, at least if you’re willing to do a little winding. I recently came across an ad for flashlight that’s charged by a hand crank. How well it works I don’t know yet. But if someone from my family is listening, and feels inclined to get me a gift anytime soon, I’ll be sure to report back.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Watching for Raptors in Winter

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Talk about coincidences.

Monday morning I took advantage of a break in the rain to bike from my home in Champaign to my office on campus at the U of I. As I approached a vacant lot on White Street just east of First, five crows swooped in to land in a leafless silver maple tree, where another crow was already perched, calling as though his life depended on it. The others took up the cry with equal fury, rocking back and forth and bobbing their heads in the direction of a midlevel branch.

There sat a red tailed hawk, miserable from a night of rain, her wet feathers buffeted by the wind, now under assault by six angry crows. The hawk was clearly agitated by all the attention, but she stayed put, and after a bit, the crows moved on.

The coincidence involved with this hawk sighting is that I was on my way to the office to write this radio piece about looking for birds of prey in late fall and winter. It may be a lousy time of year for other outdoor activities, but it’s a great time to see hawks, falcons, owls, and even eagles—the meat-eating birds known collectively as raptors.

This incident also illustrates much of what I intended to say about looking for birds of prey.

First, it shows that paying attention to the behavior of other birds can help you to see raptors you wouldn’t otherwise notice. Any time you’re outdoors and you hear an excited group of crows or blue jays, take a minute to see what’s causing the stir. Crows and jays make it their business to track and harass birds of prey whenever they encounter them. Find the center of their attention, and you may well find a hawk or an owl.

The behavior of birds being hunted by hawks can also alert you to their presence. Cooper’s hawks, for example, often prey on the birds that congregate at backyard feeders. So if you’ve got a yard full of sparrows that goes suddenly still, look up. There could be a hawk soaring overhead, or perched in a tree nearby. And if the small birds at your feeder all take flight together, look to see whether a cooper’s hawk has zoomed in to grab one.

My Monday morning hawk sighting also illustrates the point that you need not make special trips to see raptors, especially when the leaves are off the trees. If you look out for birds of prey you have a chance to see them anytime you step out the door, even in urban areas. Red tailed hawks, cooper’s hawks, great horned owls, screech owls, and American kestrels all have adapted to life in built up human environments. In our area numbers of these birds are steady to increasing, thanks to the 1972 ban on DDT.

You can see even more birds of prey with a little bit of looking. Winter travel provides excellent hawk watching opportunities, since the grassy strips along highways are such good habitat for the small mammals that hawks and falcons often eat. Of course if you’re driving you’ll want to keep your eyes on the road, but if you’re a passenger you can spot raptors by scanning the tops of fences, road signs, and power poles, where hunting birds might perch.

All of this is really to say you don’t have to turn on the Discovery channel to see birds of prey. They live among us, and this is a great time of year to look for them.