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