Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thoughts on carbon cap and trade from U of I economist Don Fullerton

Thoughts on carbon cap and trade from U of I economist Don Fullerton

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If you’re already a campaigner for or against a national system of cap and trade for carbon in the U.S., today’s commentary probably won’t offer much interest to you. If, on the other hand, you’re still a little fuzzy on just what cap and trade is, and you’d be interested to know some thoughts on it from Don Fullerton, a UI economist who specializes in research on energy and environmental policy, stick around.

First, the simple definition. Under a cap and trade system, the government creates a market for carbon emissions by issuing a number of permits that matches the maximum target amount of carbon output. In order to emit carbon legally, a firm would have to hold a number of permits equal to its own quantity of carbon output, and these permits could be bought and sold in an open market. Firms that can reduce carbon emissions at a lower cost than the prevailing market price can sell their permits, and firms with higher abatement costs can buy permits.

On the plus side, according to Fullerton, such a system, properly implemented, can produce the intended result. That’s because 85 percent of U.S. carbon emissions come from operations that would fall under the regulation of such a plan.

He thinks it unwise, however, for supporters of cap and trade to suggest it could be implemented without any disruption to the economy because that raises expectations in an unhelpful way. “In the short term” Fullerton says, “prices on energy and energy-intensive goods are going to increase. There’s no way around that.”

From Fullerton’s perspective a rise in the price of fossil fuels is not sufficient reason to reject cap and trade. He points out that the costs of cutting greenhouse gas emissions through such a system are predictable, and that they can be minimized. On the other hand, the costs of doing nothing to avert climate change are much more difficult to anticipate, and they’re likely to be higher. In wealthy parts of the world such costs might include the economic burdens of coping with new conditions for agriculture and protecting coastal cities from sea-level rise. In developing countries, such costs would be borne more directly by the world’s poorest people, those millions who would suffer from drought in Africa, and those millions who would be displaced by sea-level rise in Bangladesh.

Fullerton acknowledges a point often made by opponents of cap and trade in the U.S., that higher prices on fossil fuel here have the greatest impact on the Americans who earn the least. But he counters that a cap and trade system could be made fair through tax credits or direct payments to people based on income. To provide the funding for such compensation, it would be essential that the government raise money by auctioning off the carbon permits rather than giving them away. Otherwise taxpayers wind up subsidizing energy companies.

Would implementing cap and trade wreck the economy? Fullerton points out there’s a lot of evidence that it won’t. Will it cause disruptions? Yes. In a world of higher prices for fossil fuel, some companies will lose and others will win, especially innovative companies that have already been looking ahead.

The biggest potential trouble with cap and trade, according to Fullerton, is what’s known as leakage, which is the movement of activities with high carbon costs to other countries. For that reason Fullerton thinks the U.S. should not go it alone. But for him that’s more an argument for making our first steps moderate than for taking none at all. Events leading up to the U.N. conference currently taking place in Copenhagen suggest that if the U.S. is willing to lead, other countries, including China and India may be willing to follow.


For a fresh perspective on the U.N. climate change conference check out coverage by Adam Lentz on his blog "From Urbana to Copenhagen" []. A native of Copenhagen who is studying in the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar, Lentz is currently working toward a double Master’s degree in the departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Monticello program conserves water on large scale

Monticello program conserves water on large scale

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For most of us, conserving water means buying an efficient washing machine when the old one conks out, remembering to turn off the tap when we brush our teeth, or watering the lawn only when it’s really necessary. Not Brett Thompson. He manages the City of Monticello’s infrastructure study program, which is aimed at identifying and correcting problems with the city's water and sewer systems.

Here’s the problem Thompson faced with regard to the city water system in Fall 2008. The city water plant was pumping and treating an average of 608,000 gallons of water per day. But the aggregate water used by people on the system was only approximately 517,000 gallons of water a day. That meant that every day roughly 91,000 gallons of water were being pumped from the Mahomet Aquifer, treated, and then lost to leaks somewhere between the treatment plant and the end users—a 15 percent loss. [Photo: A leak in the water line at the corner of State and Center streets sprayed like a geyser when uncovered by Monticello city employees in March.]

Clearly it was time to fix the leaks.

Of course, while fixing leaks in a water system isn’t rocket science, finding them can be tricky, since even fairly big ones are not usually visible above ground. With help from the Illinois Rural Water Association, Thompson and Scott Bailey of the city’s water department began the process of locating leaks by mapping the City’s water and sewer systems, an effort that also benefitted from the assistance of interns in the surveying program at Parkland College.

As the team did the mapping, it also worked to identify which water lines had substantial leaks by measuring the levels of vibration at fire hydrants with a device called a geophone. Higher than usual vibration at a fire hydrant is a sign of a leak somewhere in the line that feeds it.

Other evidence was useful to pinpoint the location of leaks. Thompson and company found several leaks by running a special camera through the city’s sanitary sewer system, which allowed them to see water coming into the sewer line where it was not supposed to. They found other leaks by checking for chlorine in water coming out of storm sewer lines, since the presence of chlorine indicated where treated water was making its way into storm water system. The team even found leaks by checking the output of residential sump pumps that were active during dry weather; in that way they discovered some that were sending water into the ground around people’s homes.

By the end of this past September, the City of Monticello had identified and fixed all 12 of the significant leaks in its water system. As a result, during October 2009, the first full month after all of the leaks were fixed, the water plant pumped an average of 124,000 gallons per day less than it did a year ago, which represents a 20 percent reduction in water use. It’s as though each of the city’s 5,200 residents reduced his or her water usage by almost 24 gallons a day.

Brett Thompson is justifiably proud of the water conservation his team has achieved in Monticello, and he hopes their example encourages other communities to examine their water systems. For more information he can be reached at (217) 762-2583 or

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Invitation to meet the U of I Environmental Change Institute

Invitation to meet the U of I Environmental Change Institute

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A few years back Chicago attorney Joel Friedman picked up a copy of a book called The Weather Makers by Australian scientist Tim Flannery as he awaited a flight out of London’s Heathrow airport. By the time Friedman’s plane touched down at O’Hare, he had come to understand climate change as a significant issue, and was determined to learn more about it. The more he learned, the more he was convinced of the need to act on a large scale.

With the input of long-standing connections at the University of Illinois, Friedman followed through on his conviction by channeling resources from the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund, of which he is president, into the creation of a unit on the UI campus that would enhance understanding of climate change and speed the dissemination of solutions to the problems it entails from the academy to the wider world. This new unit, the Environmental Change Institute (ECI), was constituted in early 2008 with matching funds from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the College of Business and the College of Law. [Photo: some of the people who make up ECI--left to right, Wes Jarrell, Rob Kanter, Jen Nelson, John Marlin, Lori Spencer, Matt Luedtke, Willie Dong, Bill Kruidenier, Eric Jackson, Crystal Bartanen]. As Wes Jarrell, who is interim director of ECI as well as a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences explains, “The complexity of challenges related to environmental change makes it essential that policy, science, and business work together to address and solve these challenges.”

The mission of ECI is to advance understanding of global environmental change and offer solutions to avoid, mitigate, or adapt to its effects through support of scholarly research, innovative teaching, and public outreach.

In specific terms, ECI currently funds twelve research projects, which are led by investigators from across campus. Among these, the project with the potential to be most visible is the Integrated Sustainable Homestead being developed on the South Farms. This project will demonstrate the workability of an integrated local organic food, energy and water system for Illinois. At the Integrated Sustainable Farm students will learn about where food comes from, how energy can be conserved and produced at the home scale, and how water can be used efficiently and sustainably, all through hands-on experience.

The Environmental Change Institute has also awarded grants to help UI faculty develop six new courses that will enable students to better help humanity mitigate and cope with environmental change. Among these are courses on energy law, biofuels and green roofs. Perhaps the most ambitious of the courses ECI has supported is the Illini Carbon Registry, which promotes a culture of sustainability on campus by encouraging local investment in carbon offsetting projects. The carbon offsetting projects this class has investigated are all sponsored by the fees UI students assess themselves to promote sustainability, and they include the purchase and installation of sensor-based lighting systems for classrooms, energy efficient computers for administrative offices, and a student-run farm to produce food for dining halls.

Beyond research and teaching, ECI has also sponsored or co-sponsored numerous presentations designed to engage people from on and off campus in responding to environmental change.

If you are interested in learning more about the work of the Environmental Change Institute please join us for our annual symposium, which is free and open to the public. The symposium will take place tomorrow, December 4, from 9:00 a.m. until noon at the Beckman Institute on the UI campus in Urbana. Details are available at

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fall burn promotes health of woodland at Allerton

Fall burn promotes health of woodland at Allerton

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Last Friday morning I was among a small group of people who came together in a parking lot at Robert Allerton Park near Monticello and prepared to set the woods on fire. Of course this wasn’t a group of thrill-seeking teenagers bent on destruction. Among those gathered were scientists and managers from the University of Illinois and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, a field representative of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and the acting natural areas manager of the park. Our purpose was to conduct a prescribed burn to promote the ecological integrity of the oak-hickory forest at the site.

How does fire promote ecological integrity in an oak-hickory forest? Partly by knocking back invasive exotic plants that would otherwise crowd out native understory flowers and shrubs. In addition, burning has the effect of killing off native maple trees, which is also a good thing. In the absence of fire, maples will eventually replace oaks and hickories through a process of succession. This process was regularly interrupted prior to European settlement in Illinois by burns that Native Americans conducted.

A rotation of prescribed burns is now part of the overall design to manage the natural areas at Allerton, where the aim is to restore the native diversity of plants and animals by controlling invasives such as garlic mustard, multiflora rose, and privet.

As you might imagine, there’s a certain pleasure in lighting a big fire and watching it sweep through the woods. But that’s really only the culminating step of a prescribed burn, a step made possible by a great deal of preparatory work.

Our burn was conducted according to a plan developed by IDNR Heritage Biologist Eric Smith. That plan was drafted a year ago and approved by supervisors at DNR as well as the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. It specified the boundaries of the burn unit, the number of people who would be involved, the weather conditions that would be acceptable for burning, what fire containment equipment would be on hand, and more.

Prior to the burn we cleared leaves and other flammable debris from the wide trails that served as firebreaks, and all members of the burn team reviewed the plan for the day together.

Here’s how it worked. The outline of our burn was a U-shape, with the Sangamon River corridor forming the open end on the north, and the wind blowing toward that end from the south. Shortly before noon we split into two groups, each of which began lighting fire at one tip on the U and continued down along the side, converging at the closed end. By design, the fire moved into the burn unit slowly from the sides of our U, and more rapidly from the closed end, since the wind pushed it along from that direction.

Our woodland burn at Allerton was never as dramatic as a prairie fire, since it was fueled only by fallen leaves and the small amount of down wood that was dry enough to burn. But now and then a standing dead tree or a broken limb with dried leaves still attached would ignite and send flames roaring skyward.

By 4:30 in the afternoon all remaining fire was contained in the blackened area, and most of the burn crew was able to leave, save for Allerton’s natural areas manager Drew Becker, who remained into the night to monitor material that was still smoldering.

Mary Kay Solecki of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, who stepped in as “burn boss” when Eric Smith injured his knee prior to the burn, termed it a success: “Everything we wanted to burn burned, and nothing burned that we didn’t want to burn. And the fire was hot enough to kill the plants we wanted to kill.”

Visitors to the woods near the Lost Garden at Allerton Park should be able to witness this success for themselves. Next spring the green of emerging wildflowers will stand out in contrast to the blackened ground. In the long term, the understory will remain open and favor the regeneration of the oaks and hickories in the forest.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trip to southern Illinois prompts thoughts about invasive species

Trip to southern Illinois prompts thoughts about invasive species

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This past Saturday morning I found myself picking goldenrod seed from my favorite fleece pullover. I was waiting with another parent while our Boy Scouts prepared for a trip to Giant City State Park in southern Illinois. I remarked to him that it would probably be better for me not to bring along those seeds, which had gotten stuck on me at River Bend Forest Preserve the week before. Who knows what impact they would have, transported 200 miles from where they started?

That moment came back to me again and again on our trip, as I was reminded of the many ways people shape the world by moving plants and animals around.

Of course we were already not hauling firewood with us because we’ve gotten the message about emerald ash borer. That’s the small beetle from Asia that has killed tens of millions of North American ash trees since it arrived near Detroit via wooden packing crates sometime before 2002. Emerald ash borers fly only short distances—maybe half a mile from where they begin life—but they have spread hundreds of miles through the movement of infested nursery stock and firewood.

As we drove south I noticed more and larger stands of Phragmites australis, or common reed. This is an aggressive European strain of a wetland grass that squeezes out all other plant life where it becomes established in North American settings. And phragmites is equally happy in a roadside ditch or a high quality natural area. [Dense stands of phragmites bordering a pond in Champaign County. It's pretty to look at, but detrimental to wildlife.] With its tall, graceful stalks and its elegant plumes of seed, phragmites looks pretty until you think about how detrimental it is to wildlife. It is good for neither food nor cover, and it crowds out plants that are. As I gazed over the vast swaths of phragmites near Rend Lake, I found myself thinking how similar it looks to miscanthus, the Asian grass that’s now so heavily promoted as a potential energy crop.

Even during our time at Giant City State Park we were reminded that plants often behave badly when they’re introduced into new ecosystems, where the forces that would keep them in check at home are absent. At the trailhead for our hike on Saturday afternoon we found a boot brushing station, where visitors were asked to clean up their footwear before setting out. [Rest assured the Scouts were having fun at Giant City, not worrying about invasive plants.] The station was set up by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as one component of its broad effort to maintain the natural character of the park. According to IDNR naturalist Angie Kirkpatrick, invasive plants such as Japanese stilt grass and multiflora rose affect even the more remote areas of Giant City, and it’s a constant battle to keep them under control.

It seems to me the practical impact of a single boot brushing station at the beginning of a heavily-used trail would likely be pretty small. But I like the gesture it represents. In the same way we show respect for other people by not tracking dirt into their houses, we can show respect for the natural world by not thoughtlessly moving plants and animals (including insects) into places they don’t belong.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Panel of experts to address economic aspects of policy on climate change

Panel of experts to address economic aspects of policy on climate change

If things go as UI professor of finance Don Fullerton would have them, this Tuesday at 12:30 p.m. there will be a standing-room-only audience in the 300-seat Deloitte Auditorium of the Business Instructional Facility in Champaign. [Details here.] That audience will be eager to learn about prospects for action on climate change in the U.S. and around the world from a three-member panel of internationally recognized experts on the economic aspects of environmental policy.

Fullerton hopes to see a wide range of people in the audience, including undergraduate and graduate students, faculty from a across campus, and members of the public who are able to take advantage of this opportunity.

Although climate change is the impetus for this panel, scientific issues such as trends in world temperatures and rates of glacial retreat will not be the focus of attention. Rather, starting from the scientific consensus that global warming is a reality, and assuming that climate disruption will entail economic costs, the panel will examine the implications of some of the public policy options available for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These policy options include things like cap-and-trade systems for carbon, carbon taxes and tax credits or direct government support for the development of renewable energy.

Professor Fullerton, who organized and will also serve on the panel, is a former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department. He now studies energy and environmental policy issues at the UI Institute of Government and Public Affairs, and is a leading researcher on the economic impact of environmental regulations. Among his many credentials, he was the lone academic expert invited to speak about climate policy earlier this month at a meeting of European Union finance ministers that was a springboard for December’s climate conference in Copenhagen.

Charles Kolstad, who will also serve on the panel, is an economics professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara. He was a lead author and researcher for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Kolstad is interested in the role information plays in environmental decision-making and regulation, and does much of his applied work in the area of climate change and energy markets. His past energy-related projects have included research into the effect of air pollution regulation on the coal and electricity markets.

The third panelist, Nat Keohane, left academia after six years of teaching economics in the business school at Yale to become Director of Economic Policy and Analysis at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Keohane is noted for his optimism regarding the role markets can play in resolving global warming. “We can afford to cut emissions ambitiously and deeply if we start now,” he says in a video about his role at EDF. “We have the technologies in place to get started and we know the policies we need, also. We need to harness the market to find the lowest cost, most effective ways of reducing emissions.”

The panel, which is free and open to the public, is cosponsored by three UI units: the Center for Business and Public Policy, the Institute of Government and Public Affairs and the Environmental Change Institute.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bats in eastern U.S. face worst threat ever

Bats in eastern U.S. face worst threat ever

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Just two years ago at Halloween I gave a commentary encouraging people to appreciate bats. There I pointed out that all Illinois bats feed on insects, and that they consume enormous quantities of mosquitoes and agricultural pests. That commentary ended with this rhetorical flourish: “If the thought of living with bats makes you shiver, think of where we’d be without them.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but earlier that year scientists in New York had documented a new disease that could make the nightmare of a world without bats—at least some species--real.

It’s called “White-nose Syndrome,” and in the words of Jean Mengelkoch, a biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign, “It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to bats.”

White-nose syndrome seems to be caused by a newly described fungus (Geomyces destructans) that grows on the muzzles and bodies of bats that hibernate in caves and mines. It appears the fungus causes affected animals to become active in temperatures too cold for insect-catching, which means they use up the fat stores needed to survive the winter prematurely. [ Photo by Marvin Moriarty/USFWS depicts a little brown bat with white-nose syndrome.]

According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate, some 400,000 bats have already died from White-nose Syndrome, and there is no end to the carnage in sight. What’s even more disturbing than the overall number of bat deaths is the rate of mortality among some afflicted colonies, which can reach 100%. That’s how scientists say, “Sometimes, every single one dies.”

Here it is even more depressing but relevant to remember that bat populations do not rebound well, either, on account of the way they live and reproduce. Many small mammals, such as mice, live short lives—a year or so—but produce multiple litters of multiple young in that time. This reproductive strategy results in populations that bounce back quickly from catastrophic declines. Bats are different. They live long—typically 10-20 years among the species most afflicted by White-nose Syndrome--and they reproduce very slowly, with females giving birth to only a single pup per year. This reproductive strategy is very ineffective for rebuilding a population that crashes.

So far, White-nose Syndrome has spread approximately 450 miles from where it was first documented, and it now affects bats in nine states. The closest cases to Illinois are in Virginia and West Virginia, where it seems to have been transmitted by cavers who were visiting from affected areas in the northeast. Apparently the fungus survives in soil where it can be picked up on clothing and other gear and then taken to new locales.

In an effort to slow the spread of White-nose Syndrome, the eastern region office of the National Forest Service closed all caves and mines on National Forest System land—including those in the Shawnee National Forest--in April of this year.

If there is anything positive to say on the subject of White-nose Syndrome in bats, it can be only that people are responding to the threat with all of the concern it deserves. Scientists from state and federal agencies are working feverishly to understand the causes of and identify remedies for the problem. And cavers, whose recreation is affected by closures, are cooperating with and raising money for efforts to stop the spread of the disease.

See more on White-Nose Syndrome at:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fall wildlife spectacle of sandhill crane congregation a short drive away

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Fall wildlife spectacle of sandhill crane congregation a short drive away
[originally posted October 2, 2008]

It’s a disappointing fact of life for residents of east central Illinois that we have few opportunities to experience wildlife in great abundance. We have forest patches, prairie reconstructions, and stream corridors where we can observe and hunt and fish, but these fragmentary habitats aren’t home to great numbers of many creatures, unless you count insects. But fall brings us the opportunity to witness a truly impressive concentration of one magnificent species of bird only a couple of hours away. It’s the gathering of southward bound sandhill cranes at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in northwest Indiana.

As of this week there are some 200-300 sandhill cranes at the site, but their numbers will increase over the next month and a half until they peak at more than 10,000 in mid-November. This is a small fraction of the better known sandhill crane gathering that takes place on the Platte River in Nebraska each year, but it is still a remarkable sight to behold.

Sandhill cranes are among the largest birds that occur in North America. They stand about four feet tall, and have a wingspan that may stretch from six to seven feet. With their long legs and neck they bear some resemblance to the great blue herons that we can see year round, but sandhill cranes are identifiable by their uniformly gray plumage and bald head, which is bright red in adults. If you want to impress your friends by distinguishing between cranes and herons in flight, you need only remember that flying cranes stretch their necks out straight forward, while herons curve theirs back against the body in an “S.” Cranes are also far more gregarious than great blue herons, and it is typical to see them flying together in flocks that stretch out like long ribbons in the sky, rather than alone, as herons do. Adult crane pairs remain together year round, and crane young born in spring and summer stick with their parents through the southward migration in fall.

You will often know that sandhill cranes are coming before you see them from their bugling calls, which carry great distances, and sound as ancient as anything you’ll hear. And sandhill cranes should sound ancient. Their skeletal structure is identical to that of a 10 million-year-old crane fossil that was found in Nebraska, which makes them the oldest known species of bird now living on earth.

The most fascinating thing sandhill cranes do is dance. As they come together in the evening prior to roosting they seem to charge each other up, like children arriving at a birthday party. First one bows, and flaps its wings then does a little leap into the air. Then its neighbors join in and the energy ripples through the larger flock.

The best way to see large numbers of sandhill cranes at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife area is to spend an hour or two before sunset at the observation deck. There you can watch the cranes come in to a grassy field where they gather before flying out to roost in the marshes at night. If you arrive earlier in the day you can see individual cranes and smaller flocks in harvested agricultural fields nearby. Binoculars are essential for this trip, and a more powerful spotting scope is helpful if you have access to one.

Details about viewing sandhill cranes at Jasper-Pulaski are available on the web through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. In addition, you may want to check in with the Champaign County Audubon Society, which conducts a field trip to see the cranes in November.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Champaign County's current use of Mahomet Aquifer unsustainable

Champaign County's current use of Mahomet Aquifer unsustainable

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Last week’s Environmental Almanac drew attention to a report issued in June by the Regional Water Supply Planning Committee for East-Central Illinois. It also highlighted some of the inadequacies of current water-use law in the state. This week I want to call attention to the issue of water use, particularly the current overuse of water from the Mahomet Aquifer in and around Champaign-Urbana.

The report by the Regional Water Supply Planning Committee characterizes the current state of affairs by saying “East-Central Illinois is not facing an immediate water crisis,” rather than commenting on where the continuation of current trends would take us. And it asserts the committee’s belief that a plan with “no new laws or regulations and voluntary participation” can pave the way to a rosy future, one that would be described by the headline, “Sustainable Water Supplies for East-Central Illinois.”

I hope for that future, too. But I think we’re unlikely to get there unless we come to grips with the fact that we already have a problem. Here’s what it is: In Champaign County we use water from the Mahomet Aquifer faster than it can be recharged. We’re over budget. We’re running a deficit. It seems to be true we won’t drain the account completely in the next two generations, but that’s not because we’re managing it well. We’re comparatively rich in water only because we inherited such a big account in the first place.

The movement of water through aquifers is complex, and there are limits to current understanding, but I think we can reasonably draw such conclusions.

Using information from modeling done by the Illinois State Water Survey, Clark Bullard, a U of I engineering professor and board member of the conservation group, Prairie Rivers Network, constructed a water budget for Champaign County, which provides a simplified version of what’s going on below the ground.

Bullard starts out with the fact that Champaign County withdraws about 33 million gallons per day from the Mahomet Aquifer and then sets out to answer the question, “Where does it come from?”

Recent calculations derived from the Water Survey’s computer modeling suggest about half of that--16 million gallons--comes from water that would have otherwise traveled through shallow soils into local rivers and streams, keeping them healthy. Another 13 million gallons of that is water that would otherwise be available in neighboring counties: roughly 4 million from Ford, Vermilion and Iroquois counties together, and 9 million from counties to the west. That leaves a difference of 4 million gallons withdrawn from storage, which is the daily amount by which we are depleting the water “bank account” we will leave to future generations.

So in Champaign County the answer to the question “Where does our water come from?” is from our rivers, from our neighbors and from our children.

I mentioned earlier that the report by the Regional Water Supply Planning Committee doesn’t call attention to the deficit in our water budget, but I would add that a careful reader can find hints of that problem in the report. Dwain Berggren who represented the interest of the environment on the committee created a list of them, which you can find posted with this segment on the Environmental Almanac Web site.

But for now, let me leave you with this one. Between the years 1930 and 2007 the water-level elevation of an observation well on Rising Road declined about 83 feet—a little over a foot per year. The water level at that well can be safely drawn down only about another 80 feet. I bet you don’t need a calculator to figure out how long it will take for that to happen.


Following is Dwain Bergrenn's commentary on the implications of the Regional Water Supply Planning Committee's report. The report itself can be downloaded at


As a Champaign County resident and member of the committee issuing the MAC-RWSPC final report, I note that it does not express a definite opinion about the sustainability of our county’s groundwater resources. But implications of statements in the report that are quoted below lead me to a negative conclusion:

  • "... a well in Champaign finished in the Glasford Aquifer is reported ... to no longer yield water, probably due mainly to extensive pumping from nearby wells in the deeper [underlying] Mahomet Aquifer." (page 10)

  • "In 2007, water-level elevation (head) in the Petro North observation well on Rising Road, a few miles west of Champaign, was about 83 feet lower than the predevelopment (1930) water level (Figure 7 (page 17)). The current water level is about 80 feet above the top of the aquifer at that location. The historical records indicate an average drop in water level of 1.08 feet per year since 1930." [p. 74; Figure 17 shows four different estimates for the 2050 head in the well which range from about 35 to 70 feet above the top of the Mahomet Aquifer.]

  • "... withdrawals in and around Champaign County have formed a large, persistent cone of depression tens of miles across, extending into neighboring counties." (p. 10)

  • A 2006 study reporting computer-simulated pumping studies of the Illinois American well field concluded that "dewatering of shallow water-bearing zones [above the Mahomet Aquifer] will affect some local wells and ultimately reduce the capacity of the Mahomet Aquifer due to deceased vertical leakage." (p. 16)

  • "... Mahomet Aquifer groundwater flow from Champaign County to Piatt County, estimated to have been 10 mgd [million gallons daily] in predevelopment times, already has been reversed and Champaign County now "imports" an estimated 3 mgd from Piatt County. By 2050, water from even farther west will be pulled into the expanding cone of depression centered in Champaign County. Possible implications of this groundwater flow reversal for water availability in Piatt County have not been evaluated." (p. 17)

  • "Heads in some wells finished in shallow confined aquifers – the Glasford Aquifer in and around Champaign-Urbana, for example – are likely to continue to decline and more wells finished in the Glasford Aquifer are likely to go dry with increased withdrawals from the Mahomet Aquifer." (p. 42)

  • "Especially in the eastern and central parts of the Mahomet Aquifer, the groundwater it contains generally is 3,000 to 10,000 ... [radiocarbon years in age]. ... ‘Rain and snow that falls on the surface in Champaign County begins a roughly 3,000-year journey downwards to the Mahomet Aquifer, traveling at an average rate of less than an inch a year. Once it reaches the aquifer, it travels laterally in every compass direction but south. After about 7,000 years, water that journeyed westward seeps into the Illinois River along the river bottom near Havana, Illinois.’ Such were the natural predevelopment conditions, but these have been modified by groundwater development. It takes much longer to replace water taken out of storage from the more deeply buried, till-confined parts of the Mahomet Aquifer than it does to replace water withdrawn from surface waters and shallow unconfined aquifers." [my emphasis; p.65.]

So, considering these points, is our present use of the Mahomet Aquifer System reasonable and sustainable? Certainly, further studies of our water resources are urgently needed to define their dynamics and nature more clearly and exactly. But the conditions cited in the RWSPC report argue for a negative judgement when examined by the standards of a conservative definition of sustainable water resource and supply systems (see also page 56 of the report).

To be truly – in the strictest sense – sustainable, our use and management of an already compromised county water resource will require us to (1) preserve the Mahomet Aquifer System in perpetuity, (2) maintain the natural integrity of its waters and protect them from irreparable harm, (3) distribute water equitably to sustain the good health and vitality of the living communities in its surrounding ecosystem, and (4) continually monitor the natural resources it affects.

--Dwain Bergrenn

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Presentation on water supply planning raises questions about water supply law

Presentation on water supply planning raises questions about water supply law

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I was one of about 70 people who attended a recent public meeting in Champaign conducted by the Regional Water Supply Planning Committee for East-Central Illinois. The committee, which was appointed in 2006, has been holding meetings throughout the region to present the findings of a report it completed in June. As that report indicates, the people of east central Illinois do not face an immediate water crisis, but we’re by no means immune to the threat of water shortages, either.

To me, the most interesting questions raised by the work of the committee have to do with the legal rights of water users, which I’ll explore today, and the sustainability of water supplies in the region, which I’ll return to next week. But I would also strongly encourage others to become informed about and involved in the ongoing water supply planning process.

The Regional Water Supply Planning Committee was charged with making recommendations to improve the planning and management of water supplies under the framework of existing law, not with evaluating that law.

At the meeting I attended, Gary Clark, of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, presented a condensed overview of current law for the committee. Under the Water Use Act of 1983, withdrawals of groundwater were brought into the same framework that had long governed the withdrawal of surface water in Illinois, which is the doctrine of reasonable use. Under this doctrine, owners of land adjoining surface water, such as a lake or stream, or owners of land overlying an aquifer are entitled to reasonable use of the water contained therein. Under this law, the reasonableness of one party’s water use can be challenged only by another party who can show that her right to use the resource has been harmed in some identifiable way.

Like other people I spoke with after the meeting, I was left feeling uneasy about the potential for current law to protect some values important to me. So I checked in with Eric Freyfogle, who teaches natural-resources, property, and land-use law at the U of I to get his perspective on the state of water law in Illinois.

Freyfogle noted that current law dates from the nineteenth century, and that it was essentially designed to discourage people from wasting water. It was not, he said, set up to resolve disputes in the face of scarcity, nor was it written with regard for environmental values.

Among the deficiencies in current Illinois water law we discussed, Freyfogle emphasized its extraordinary vagueness. Nobody can know in advance whether various uses are permissible or not, since the definition of “reasonable use” is decided on a case by case basis. Also unclear under current law is where it is permissible to use water. A strict interpretation, for example, might say that a water company has no right to pump water from wells outside of town and then distribute it elsewhere throughout the community. The uncertainties associated with current law also make it difficult for potential large users, including municipalities, to plan for the future. They cannot reserve water for future use, nor can they halt new uses that might frustrate their plans.

Beyond these legal uncertainties, Freyfogle also called attention to some of the public uses current law does not protect. It makes no provision for the rights of anglers or boaters, for instance, and it includes no direct protections for the interests of the public in aquatic life or water quality, both of which are affected by water withdrawals.

The upshot of this is not to say that Illinois water withdrawal law needs to be reconstructed from the ground up, but that without some updating it is not suitable to meet current needs.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Bike count, "Walk and Ride to School Day" aim to increase ease and safety of people powered transportation

Bike count, "Walk and Ride to School Day" aim to increase ease and safety of people powered transportation

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Just before seven o’clock on the morning of September 9th I took my post at the southeast corner of State and Green Streets in Champaign. The heavy fog that had settled in overnight was beginning to lift, and a gentle breeze made it just a little too cool to be out in short sleeves. Across Green Street the Champaign Public Library and Edison Middle School both stood quiet yet.

Ten minutes later that I saw my first bicyclist, a guy in his late twenties wearing a bright yellow shirt and carrying a heavy backpack. He sailed through the intersection from the north with a slug of automobile traffic, and I made the first tally mark on my “Standard Bicycle Intersection Count Form.”

I was one of 24 volunteers participating that day in a bike count organized by the City of Champaign, the University of Illinois, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, and the C-U Safe Routes to Schools Project. Our count, which will feed into a larger effort, the National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project, is geared toward generating baseline data on bicycling.

According to local count organizers, this data will be useful for multiple purposes. It will help guide decisions about changes needed to infrastructure--for example, where bike lanes would help bicyclists and motorists operate with less potential for conflict. It will also help to assess the impact of such changes, especially whether changes increase bicycling, decrease crashes and injuries, and/or increase safe behavior. It is also hoped that possessing consistent, reliable information on bicycling will better enable planners to incorporate appropriate infrastructure for non-motorized forms of transportation into the design and funding of roadway projects.

The overall numbers for the bicycle count I participated in are not yet available, but over the course of my two-hour shift I observed 72 riders, for an average of one every minute and forty seconds. Fifty-five of them were operating as vehicles on the street, while the other 17 rode on the sidewalk. I wasn’t keeping track of how many wore helmets for purposes of the count, but my impression was that about half did.

Given the way my attention is normally drawn to drivers and bicyclists who behave carelessly, I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded that most drivers and bicyclists really are focused on what they’re doing.

If you are interested in the question of how safe and easy it is to get around by bike or on foot in your own neighborhood, you might want to help children participate in “International Walk and Bike to School Day,” which is coming up next Wednesday, October 7th.

In part, the idea behind having a walk and bike to school day is to remind people of the benefits afforded by these modes of transportation, including everything from the lift that individual students get as a result of some physical activity, to the goods of decreased pollution and traffic congestion that can be enjoyed by everyone. [Photo from 2008 "Walk and Ride to School Day" at King School in Urbana, courtesy C-U Safe Routes to School Project.]

Organizers of “Walk and Bike to School Day” also invite parents and students to make note of any difficulties they encounter by means of a checklist. Information from these checklists can then be used to make it safer and easier for children to get to school by walking or biking.

Details about “Walk and Bike to School Day” are available on the Web site of the Champaign-Urbana Safe Routes to School Project at

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Enjoy “Take a Child Outside Week”

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Enjoy “Take a Child Outside Week”

Today marks the beginning of “Take a Child Outside Week,” which is an initiative that’s being promoted around the country by environmental educators, including many in central Illinois. In the words of organizers, the aim of “Take a Child Outside Week” is “to help break down obstacles that keep children from discovering the natural world.”

For some thoughts on how parents and caregivers might mark this occasion, I checked in recently with Judy Miller, who is the Environmental Program Manager of the Urbana Park District. Miller is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable naturalist who is eager to share ideas about how people can connect with the natural world.

Her first suggestion was to check out the Urbana Park District’s “Wild about Parks” program, which is designed as a way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Anita Purves Nature Center. In keeping with the spirit of the nature center, this program encourages people to get outside and explore.

Participants start by obtaining a booklet of clues, which can either be picked up at the nature center or downloaded from the web. The clues lead to small, weather-proof boxes that have been placed at various parks and facilities. Materials in the boxes, developed by the Park District’s environmental educators, provide information about the locations where they are found and about the plants and animals that occur there.

Participants keep a record of what they have found by marking their “Wild about Parks” booklet with the unique stamp kept in each box. A separate notebook that stays in the box enables participants to leave a mark or a message to the other people who find it.

Naturally before I suggested this activity to others I had to try it myself, so I popped over to Crystal Lake Park over lunch one day last week to locate the “Wild about Parks” box there. I won’t be giving too much away to say it contains a sheet telling about the ancient oaks found in the park and about cedar waxwings, distinctive birds that can be also observed there.

On my brief quest I was glad to confirm a point Judy Miller had made with regard to the “Wild about Parks” program, that it’s as much about the experiences one enjoys in the course of the search as it is about finding the box. Being at Crystal Lake Park that afternoon I saw things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, from warblers flitting about in the dense growth by the lake to small fish feeding on the insects drifting in the current of the Saline Branch.

The first set of clues for the “Wild about Parks Program” has been available for some time already, but the second set is being made available today to mark the beginning of “Take a Child Outside Week.”

Of course, celebrating “Take a Child Outside Week” need not include participating in any program at all, and when I spoke with Judy Miller she also had thoughts on enjoying the natural world at home. She pointed out that Fall is a great time of year to watch for creatures migrating on the wing, from dragonflies and monarch butterflies, which can be observed near ground level, to nighthawks and other birds that pass by high overhead. She also noted that there is no end of ways for children to enjoy trees in the fall, from collecting and comparing the acorns and nuts on the ground, to watching the leaves change colors and playing in them as they come down.

To discover these pleasures children need only be outside, so if you can, why not help them get there this week?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Solar Decathlon provides UI students experience creating sustainable house

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Solar Decathlon provides UI students experience creating sustainable house

[Information about this weekend's open house available at the Gable Home web site:]

Over the course of the past three months, students and faculty advisors from the University of Illinois have been completing construction of a small house near the College of ACES library on campus in Urbana. With an interior area of only 565 square feet, it’s a much smaller structure than most Americans might picture in association with the word “house.” But it’s certainly a building with many stories.

One important story is its reason for being. The Gable Home, as it is called, is not meant for a family to live in, but to represent the U of I at the 2009 Solar Decathlon. This competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, will bring together 20 teams from select post-secondary institutions around the world to set up houses on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in October. [Photos: upper, the house nearly ready for visitors; lower, solar panels being installed back in July.] Entries in the contest will be judged by their architectural integrity and aesthetic appeal, as well as how they meet demands for energy.

The most practical way to make a house that can meet all of its energy needs with solar power is to greatly reduce those needs through conservation. Thus the creators of the Gable Home are aiming for the most rigorous current benchmark for energy efficiency in building, the Passive House standard. Adherence to this standard, which is widely employed in Europe, and is promoted by the Passive House Institute U.S. located right in Urbana, reduces energy use by 90% compared to conventional construction.

The Gable Home minimizes thermal losses by means of exterior walls that incorporate an extraordinary amount of insulation, from about 9” where they are thinnest to 14” where they’re thickest. The innovative framing used in the walls, a thin bamboo laminate called Lamboo, was chosen over steel because it conducts less heat between the interior and exterior of the house than steel would.

The windows of the Gable Home, which comprise three panes of glass in an argon filled frame, also serve to prevent thermal loss better than standard double panes. In addition, the windows on the south wall of the house are much larger than those on the north, which will allow it to take advantage of the free heat provided by the low sun in winter.

Conserving energy is only part of the game at the Solar Decathlon, since teams also earn points by performing the tasks of everyday life, including cooking, washing dishes and doing laundry, as well as running a computer and a television. The creators of the Gable Home anticipate that it will generate more electricity than it uses by means of the solar panels on its roof. This will earn them points in the competition and enable them to sell electricity back to the grid over the life of the house.

To the credit of everyone involved, the Gable Home is characterized by attention to issues of sustainability beyond energy use. Its exterior siding is made from wood that was salvaged from a barn on the family farm of student working on the project. Similarly, the deck around the house and the handicapped-accessible ramp leading up to it are constructed with wood that was reclaimed from a grain elevator taken down in west Champaign last year. The new products used to finish the house, from the paint to the flooring to the furniture were also selected with regard to their environmental impact.

While the Gable Home won’t actually provide anyone with a place to live, the process of creating it has provided some 200 University of Illinois students from many different disciplines with direct experience in the design and construction of a sustainable house.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

University of Illinois researchers developing better method to measure carbon content of soil

University of Illinois researchers developing better method to measure carbon content of soil

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One effect of a cap and trade policy for carbon emissions would be to make it profitable to devise ways of storing carbon in the ground. People in Illinois think of FutureGen when they hear this. That’s the plan to inject carbon released by coal-fired power generation into deep underground rock formations. But there are also low-tech ways of storing carbon in the earth, much closer to the surface. Modified tilling methods and patterns of crop rotation can help sequester the carbon that is captured by growing crops.

Of course, credit to landholders for increasing the carbon content of soil would have to be based on accurate before-and-after measurements of soil carbon stocks on a very large scale.

Currently, there is no efficient way of making such measurements. To be sure, scientists are able to determine accurately the percentage of carbon contained in a sample of soil. But in order to do that they must collect it, bring it into a lab, dry it, grind it, run it through a sieve, and then burn it away in a very fancy combustion chamber. This process is labor intensive, time-consuming and expensive. And even when the data derived from it are incorporated with other information into comprehensive modeling systems, the result is only a rough estimate of the carbon content in soil for large areas.

Working with support from the recently established Environmental Change Institute at the University of Illinois, researchers Willie Dong and Nick Glumac are collaborating to develop a faster, cheaper, more accurate way to assess soil organic carbon stocks on a large scale.

Dong, who is a professor in the Environmental Change Institute, and Glumac, who is a professor in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, say they are currently nearing completion of the first step toward this goal, which is to adapt a process called “laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy” to accurately measure the percentage of carbon in soil samples in a lab.

That’s both simpler and more complicated than it sounds.

It means using a laser to vaporize a small amount of soil and then analyzing the light emitted by the resulting plasma to determine what elements were contained in the sample and in what concentrations. Do you remember in science class when you learned that astronomers understand the makeup of stars by analyzing the light they produce? The principle here is the same. The challenge is refining the process to minimize false positive results for carbon from other elements in the sample, but resolution of that issue is within reach.

The next step toward the overall goal will be to modify components of the laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy system for use in the field. This means incorporating the laser and the plasma light receiver into a probe that can be inserted into the ground, and figuring out how to mount all of the necessary apparatus on a mobile platform, such as a flatbed truck. Ultimately this set-up will enable researchers to move across the land and measure the carbon content of soil at many points right in the field, instead of bringing soil samples into a lab for processing and analysis. In combination with other data, these measurements will allow researchers to accurately estimate the total amount of carbon in a given volume of land.

Whether or not it becomes profitable to store carbon in soil will depend on what kind of policy Congress and the President develop to address climate change—and the process of developing that may be more complicated than laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy.

Below you can link to a video on this topic by John E. Marlin from the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of Illinois

Zapping Dirt in the Search for Soil Carbon from ASAP Illinois on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Return of river otters cause for hope

Return of river otters cause for hope

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This past summer I had the good fortune to observe North American river otters in Illinois on three separate occasions, more than I ever have before in a single season. The most memorable of these was when two otter pups splashed through a pool I was fishing on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River early one morning. Their mother soon followed, but she had lost sight of them and she climbed out onto the opposite bank to look around, calling as she did in a series of bird-like chirps. (I was able to get a little video clip of the mother because I had gotten out my point-and-shoot camera as the went by.)

What’s so remarkable about seeing otters in Illinois?

It was only five years ago that they were removed from the list of state threatened species. At that time their population was deemed to be widespread and secure based on estimates that there were 4,600 otters living in areas where they had been reintroduced by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The longer history of otters in Illinois is marked by dramatic ups and downs.

At the time of European settlement, river otters were common throughout state, 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 living in the state.

How did we get from fewer than one hundred otters to where we are now? Conditions for 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, 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 346 otters that had been trapped in Louisiana were released in appropriate habitat throughout Illinois. The robust growth in their numbers affirms that these animals found everything they needed to make themselves at home. Besides multiplying so quickly, they 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 and more people an opportunity to see them in years to come, and that’s cause for celebration. More importantly, though, it’s cause for hope, a reminder that even when conditions are bleak, good public policy, such as the Clean Water Act, can open the way for environmental renewal.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

U of I Student Farm produces delicious food, promotes sustainability

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When University of Illinois students at the Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall sit down to a bowl of minestrone this week, they may or may not understand what an extraordinary soup they are eating. They might appreciate the colorful mix of green, orange and red bell peppers, or the fresh ripe tomatoes, or the two types of summer squash that give their meal crunch and zip.

But there’s a story behind those vegetables.

Like much of the produce that will be served in meals at the Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall this year, they were grown on a new student farm operated through the university’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.

The farm, which is located off of Lincoln Avenue just south of Windsor Road in Urbana, currently has about two acres in crops. [Photos: (upper) Intern Lauren Williams and volunteer Daniel Schreiber harvest summer squash.(lower) Manager Zack Grant and Williams sort squash.] It began supplying U of I Dining Services with salad greens back in May, and has added to the mix as other crops have matured. The bounty currently includes an abundance of tomatoes, summer squash, sweet corn, herbs, and melons.

According to an estimate by Dawn Aubrey, senior assistant director of Dining Services, over the course of the growing season the student farm will provide somewhere between five and six tons of the food served on campus.

I should emphasize that while one purpose of the student farm is to provide members of the U of I community with “abundant, delicious, locally grown food,” it has other reasons for being, too.

In a small but symbolic way, the student farm helps to reduce the campus carbon footprint by eliminating most of the carbon emissions associated with transporting food. Vegetables grown on the farm travel a mere one and a half miles to where they are consumed, as compared to the 1,500 miles or more that food purchased from another vendor might travel.

More importantly, the farm provides students who might be interested in developing their own fruit and vegetable operations with practical experience. It employs one manager, Zack Grant, who coordinates and oversees the operation, along with two student interns, who assist him. In addition, the farm gathers in a broad group of student volunteers, who contribute labor for planting, weeding, harvesting, and whatever else needs doing. While these volunteers may not go on to careers in agriculture, they gain from their experience on the farm an understanding of the issues involved with producing food in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Crops at the farm are grown using organic methods, which is to say without the use of synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers. But as manager Zack Grant pointed out to me, sustainability is not about simply replacing synthetic pesticides with ones that are derived from plants. Rather, it is about developing a more robust growing system: conserving water and discouraging weeds by means of plastic barriers and mulch, reducing the occurrence of pests through careful planting choices, and building soil fertility through the use of compost and nitrogen-fixing cover crops.

The establishment of the student farm was enabled by funding from the Student Sustainability Committee, which allocates money accumulated through fees that U of I students assess themselves to support projects that promote sustainability. It has also benefited greatly from its collaboration with Dining Services, which has provided considerable financial and material support, as well as a steady market for its products.

With the assurance that market provides, those involved with planning for the student farm anticipate it will expand to ten acres over the next two years, and eventually produce ten percent or more of the fruits and vegetables served on campus. That’s a lot of delicious minestrone, and a real step toward sustainability.

Below you can link to a video on this topic by John E. Marlin from the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of Illinois.

University of Illinois Supplying Cafeterias from New Student Run Farm from ASAP Illinois on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

On the hunt for prairie cicadas

On the hunt for prairie cicadas

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Spend part of an August day at one of the rare, high-quality remnants of original tallgrass prairie in Illinois and you’ll be treated to the reverberating sounds of male prairie cicadas (Tibicen dorsata) singing. Or buzzing. Or droning. The terms used to describe the sounds they produce tend to reflect the status accorded to insects by the person doing the describing.

In any case that sound tells female cicadas love is in the air. It tells people who hear it that they’re in a special place, since in central Illinois prairie cicadas occur only where native plant communities remain relatively undisturbed.

I had the opportunity to get up close with prairie cicadas recently when I accompanied Rob Stanton to Loda Prairie Cemetery Nature Preserve in Iroquois County to assist him in his study of their ecology. [Photo: Rob Stanton scans for prairie cicadas.] Stanton is a graduate student in biology who hopes to promote the conservation of prairie cicadas by developing a better understanding of their needs for food and habitat. Our objective on that day was to capture and mark as many prairie cicadas as we could as part of a study to estimate the total population at the preserve.

At first we had difficulty locating our quarry, since the bare flower stalks on which prairie cicadas normally perch and feed have been slow to develop at Loda this summer. But we devised a capture method of walking through the low growth to flush them and then watching where they landed so we could net them there. During my shift we managed to catch and mark 15 cicadas.

The bodies of prairie cicadas measure between an inch and a half and two inches long. Their wings are clear—the texture of cellophane—and divided by dark veins that give them the appearance of leaded glass. Held together at an angle, the wings extend past the end of the cicada’s body to exaggerate its size.

Viewed from above, a prairie cicada’s body resembles an intricately decorated shield, with a dark background marked by symmetrical designs in various shades of tan and white. [The orange paint mark on the right wing of this cicada indicates that it has already been caught.] This shield is topped by two knob-like compound eyes and a set of small, fine antennae. On the underside, male prairie cicadas are distinguished from females by a pair of rigid plates at the base of the abdomen. These plates are hinged, and when open they uncover the audio-speaker-like membranes called tymbals that male cicadas employ to produce sound.

Like other annual cicadas, including the familiar dog day cicadas of cities and suburbs, prairie cicadas spend the greater part of their lives—anywhere from two to four years—underground, feeding on sap from the roots of plants. (Prairie cicadas are referred to as an annual cicada because their generations are staggered, so that some individuals reach adulthood each year.) When they reach maturity, they emerge from the ground to spend a short time in the sun. During that interval they mate and the females lay eggs in the stem of a plant. The nymphs that later hatch from those eggs drop to the ground and burrow down to find a root to feed on, completing the cycle.

During the conversation that took place as we sought to catch prairie cicadas, Rob Stanton met many of my inquiries with the same response, which was “That’s a good question.” The problem wasn’t that he hadn’t done his homework, but that scientists still know little about prairie cicadas beyond the basics of their life history.

Whether we are able to conserve prairie cicadas where they occur now, or reintroduce them where prairie is restored, will depend on developing a more detailed understanding of these charismatic insects.

I was motivated to seek out prairie cicadas by an article that ran recently in The Illinois Steward Magazine, which is published through the University of Illinois.

The article, written by Joseph Spencer, an insect behaviorist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, relates the excitement caused by a photograph he took last summer (left) when he and Rob Stanton went to the Loda Cemetery Preserve for an initial look at the cicadas there. By chance Spencer tripped the shutter just as a female cicada expelled excess fluid from her digestive system.

For more on why entomologists would be so interested in such an event, see “A Taste of Loda Prairie” in the Spring 2009 issue of The Illinois Steward. It is available at bookstores and libraries or, better still, by subscription: Call (217) 244-2851 or visit

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Make the most of opportunities for outdoor activity in August

Make the most of opportunities for outdoor activity in August

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August is here, the beginning of the end of summer. The thought struck me last Sunday when I observed a scattering of cottonwood leaves already on the ground. I was picnicking with family and friends prior to a short float on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River when I noticed them. The grass on which the leaves lay was uncharacteristically green for this time of year, thanks to the abundant rain we’ve enjoyed over the summer. But the cottonwood leaves were the gray-brown color of a paper grocery sack left out in the sun.

Why cottonwood leaves begin to turn brown and drop so early in the year I don’t know. But I take their appearance as a signal that it’s time to make the most of every opportunity for outdoor activity.

What can you do with August?

Some time on a river is always high on my list, since water levels are usually stable at this time of year. For the price of a forgettable hour at the county fair, you can enjoy a leisurely day in a canoe or a kayak or a float tube. If the river is low you may need to portage here and there, but shallow water has its upside, too. It allows inexperienced paddlers to practice maneuvering in a relaxed environment. And it affords access to small treasures of the river that are hidden by higher water, crayfish, mussels, and tadpoles among them.

On a river--and elsewhere--August offers its own opportunities for birding. Shorebirds, including plovers, sandpipers, and the like, can be seen probing for food on gravel bars, or along the edges of just about any body of water. They are on their way from the northern tundra, where they breed, to the Gulf Coast and points south, where they winter. Like cottonwood trees that begin to shed leaves so early, many shorebirds begin fall migration while other birds are still enjoying summer.

If you have been meaning to set up a nectar feeder for hummingbirds but haven’t gotten around to it yet, August is the time. You can enjoy seeing hummingbirds in great numbers between now and the end of September as individuals that breed further north collect here on their way south.

A visit to a prairie remnant or restoration in August offers opportunities to appreciate the plants that put the “tall” in tallgrass prairie. The seed stalks of Indian grass and big bluestem will bolt to their full height this month, until they wave in the breeze above the heads of people who venture out to see them. The tallest flowering plants will be blooming, too. Look for the disc-shaped yellow flower heads of prairie dock and compass plant on nearly leafless stalks that may be eight or ten feet high.

Among the prairie plants August is also a month of great insect activity, a time to appreciate the chorus of grasshoppers, katydids and crickets, whether or not you can identify the individual singers.

If you’re like me, you’ll run out of time in August before you run through the list of things you mean to do, but that’s okay. That’s what warm weekends in September are for.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cook County research provides perspective on coyotes among us

Cook County research provides perspective on coyotes among us

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I was saddened to learn recently that an Urbana family had lost a beloved pet dog to a coyote. As a father and a pet owner I understand the pain of such a loss. Unfortunately for our community, the news coverage of this incident tended to be heavy on sensational misperceptions and light on the sort of information that would help people make sense of it.

I took this as an opportunity to revisit the findings of the Cook County Coyote Project, the largest study of urban coyotes in the world. Scientists with the project have been gathering information about coyote behavior in the Chicago metropolitan area by a variety of methods for nearly a decade now.

One of the most important things they offer is perspective on the threat that coyotes pose to humans. They point out that although Cook County is home to large populations of both people and coyotes no case of a coyote biting a human has been documented there. The researchers compare this to the number of dog bites reported annually in Cook County, which ranges from two to three thousand. The point is not that coyotes pose no threat to people, but that from a broad perspective bites by domestic dogs present a far greater risk.

The researchers in Chicago have found that most urban coyotes are able to live among people without drawing much attention to themselves. Of the 175 animals they tracked using radio collars, only five were removed after being deemed nuisances by the local community. The trouble with these individuals typically began after they became habituated to human settings through food made available by people, whether it was intended for the coyotes or not.

Studies of what coyotes in Cook County eat suggest they play a positive role in urban ecosystems, where the shortage of predators otherwise favors undesirably large populations of some too-familiar creatures. Coyotes feed heavily on small rodents, and so help to keep their populations in check. Coyotes also help to slow population growth among white-tailed deer by taking fawns, and help to limit numbers of Canada geese by feeding on their eggs.

The Cook County researchers note that the greatest controversy over the presence of coyotes in an area is often generated by the fact that they kill free-ranging domestic cats, either for food or for the purpose of eliminating a competing predator. Where people stand on this issue is typically determined by whether they value cats being able to roam or the health of songbird populations, but I’m not going to go down that road today.

Whether people like them or not, coyotes are among us to stay. We can best coexist with them by recognizing the need to remove individuals that present an immediate threat, and the opportunity to appreciate the rest of them.

For more information:

The Cook County Coyote Project

U of I Extension "Living with Wildlife in Illinois"

Environmental Almanac: Appreciating Illinois Coyotes

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Out of the office, into a stream

Out of the office, into a stream

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Summer is here, but the people I want to catch up with for stories are not. Phone calls get me voicemail, and emails bring out-of-office replies. Perhaps some first-hand research into the health of local waterways is in order.

The equipment list for this foray is short: binoculars, check; camera, check; fly rod, fishing vest, and waders, check. Away we go.

First stop, a stretch of the Salt Fork in Vermilion County. On the drive there I’m reminded of the massive fish kill that occurred on the river back in 2002 when workers at the U of I released ammonia into the system. Note to self: find out what happened to the $450,000 the University finally paid to settle that case last year.

At the bridge where I intend to get on the river, I find it still high and muddy from the extreme rains of June. Is it worth a shot? Not likely. My enthusiasm for this spot is dampened further by some new posting. The roadside trees here bristle with signs: “PRIVATE PROPERTY” -- “Keep Out” -- “NO TRESPASSING HUNTING OR FISHING: VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.” It seems to me computer games aren’t the only thing keeping kids from spending summer days down by the old fishin’ hole.

[Photos: Silt-laden water and heavy posting discourage a stop on the Salt Fork River.]

Maybe a smaller stream would offer clearer water and better opportunities. Up the road there’s access to a tributary I’ve always meant to fish but never gotten around to. I park in the lot at a high school with grounds bordering the creek and get into my waders.

As I cross the lawn toward the woods I catch the music of water tumbling over rocks before I am able to glimpse the creek through the trees. The emphatic calling of an Acadian flycatcher, which often nests over streams, assures me I’ve come to the right place.

The creek here is even more attractive than it appeared to be from the road. Water plunges from one well-defined pool to the next over rocky riffles and through deeper, narrow runs. It’s like the Pennsylvania trout stream I’ll be fishing soon on a smaller scale, although here the fish I’m after are smallmouth bass.

The pools I cast to first are shallow, and yield only a few shiners. But as I make my way downstream I get into waist-deep water now and then, and that’s where the bass hang out. Over the next couple of hours I catch four of them, none trophies, but all worth the effort.

For the angler who’s a birder, too, the intervals between fish hold their own pleasures. I enjoy listening to the rising, buzzy trill of a northern parula, one of those songbirds that’s so eagerly awaited by birders in the spring and then forgotten once the trees leaf out. A kingfisher barrels upstream intent on her own fishing. At the sight of me she banks sharply and climbs higher, then drops back down toward the water once she is safely past.

The only heart-stopping moment of this trip comes when I flush a doe from the streamside brush. She thrashes as she rises, springs across the creek and clatters among the loose rocks there before disappearing into the woods.

I’ve substituted coffee for the lunch I didn’t pack, and by mid afternoon the impulse to eat overcomes the urge to explore one more stretch of creek. It’s good to know there will still be water that’s new to me when I come back again.