Thursday, September 23, 2010

Rain gardens grow from campus-community collaboration

Rain gardens grow from campus-community collaboration

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Last Saturday morning, the home of Anna Barnes and David Riecks on West Washington Street in Champaign was a scene of intense activity. A group of friends, neighbors, and other volunteers—27 people in all—gathered to transform the parkway in front of the house from a nondescript, mostly bare strip of land into a beautiful, functional rain garden.

Working from a design by U of I professor of Landscape Architecture, Gale Fulton, participants first removed some of soil from the site, a job made easier by the fact that it was begun with a small excavator earlier in week. With that finished, we loosened the soil that remained with a tiller, and then used shovels and rakes to create a neatly contoured basin, about fifty feet long and ten feet wide, with its lowest point midway between the sidewalk and the street.

Then we put in plants, lots of them, some 200 in all. The plants used in the project were selected by Fulton for their ability to thrive in a garden that, by design, fills with water during big storms, but which remains as dry as the rest of the landscape at other times. They include a mix of grasses, sedges and more showy flowering plants, such as cardinal flower and Siberian iris. (Some of us involved who value the potential for home landscapes to provide a food base for wildlife are encouraging Fulton to employ native plants more exclusively in future projects.)

Fulton’s involvement with this project stems from a course he developed with and U of I professor Tony Endress this past spring, which focused on sustainable approaches to storm water management in Champaign's John Street watershed. That course provided the foundation for an ongoing collaboration among students, faculty, U of I Facilities and Services, City of Champaign staff, and city residents who live in areas that flood regularly.

The sustainable approaches put forward by the class include the development of “green infrastructure,” including rain gardens, to complement conventional ways of handling rainwater.

According to Eliana Brown, an environmental engineer who coordinates the U of I’s storm water compliance efforts and was part of Fulton's class, the rain garden that went in last week should detain more than 1,200 gallons of water during a storm, or the equivalent of 23 rain barrels. [Photo: The finished garden after Wednesday morning's rain. It had filled up to the level of the curb before I got there to take a picture, but the water had then all soaked into the ground.] That would be all of the water from the roof that drains there during even a big rain event, one of the sort that floods local viaducts.

Brown acknowledges that rain gardens won’t eliminate the need for big pipes and large-scale detention basins. But she emphasizes that they reduce the burden on those parts of the system, and they provide the added benefit of filtering pollutants from the water that passes through them.

Funding for the rain garden at the Barnes-Riecks home was provided by the Illinois-American Water Corporation in the form of a grant that was secured by Prairie Rivers Network this past Spring. That grant is also being used to establish two other rain gardens, one in the John Street watershed, which was created earlier this summer, and another in the Washington Street watershed, which will be installed this Saturday, September 25.

Does the idea of a rain garden intrigue you? You could help out with the installation Saturday to get a sense of what’s involved. At the same time you will be helping to create a thing of lasting beauty and real utility. For more information or to volunteer, contact Stacy James at Prairie Rivers Network, (217) 344-2371, or

You can see a map with links to photos of some rain gardens around Champaign at

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Citizens, public interest groups push for safeguards against coal ash pollution

Citizens, public interest groups push for safeguards against coal ash pollution

If the phrase “coal ash” brings to mind no specific image for you, think back to December 2008. That’s when the most massive coal ash spill in U.S. history inundated homes, buried farmland and fouled rivers near a power plant outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. The photos and video of that disaster made plain for all to see the inadequacy of the safeguards that were supposed to protect people and wildlife from coal ash pollution. (Click here to see pictures.)

While the Tennessee spill was the biggest to date, it was not an isolated incident—significant failures of coal ash impoundments have also occurred in Georgia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania in recent years. And it represents only the most obvious way hazardous materials from coal ash contaminate the environment.

In less dramatic fashion, pollutants from coal ash stored at dump sites around the country contaminate the environment on a daily basis as they are carried away to neighboring land by the wind, migrate into groundwater or flow off directly into lakes and streams. Most significant among these are chemicals that can sicken or kill people when they occur in drinking water--arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, cadmium, etc.

How big a problem is this? Very big. The waste produced by burning coal—primarily at power plants—is second only to household garbage as a component of the American waste stream—131 million tons per year.

Illinois is currently the eighth largest generator of coal ash, but our state enjoys the dubious distinction of having more sites than any other, twelve, where contamination from coal ash has been documented in nearby water. I should add that these twelve sites have been identified through a hit-or-miss process rather than a coordinated effort, so there are likely more to be found. Our state is also home to two ash ponds ranked as “high hazard potential” facilities using criteria developed for the National Dam Safety Program, which means there is potential for dams to fail and unleash coal ash on downstream communities.

According to Traci Barkley, watershed resources scientist with the Champaign-based conservation group, Prairie Rivers Network, the current system of regulating coal ash on a state-by-state basis has enabled polluters to avoid the cost of handling this material as the hazardous waste that it is. She points out there is no statewide requirement to track or monitor where it is generated or where it is disposed of. Further, she adds, if coal ash is disposed of onsite at a power plant or in a coal mine or a quarry, no permit is required and a limited review of threats to water is conducted.

Change is in the offing, though.

After years of effort from citizens and public interest groups to document and publicize the threats posed by coal ash pollution, the U.S. EPA is poised to adopt one of two new policy options. One of these, which is backed by the coal and electric utility lobbies, would essentially allow for a continuation of the current system. The other, which has been promoted in Illinois by a coalition including Prairie Rivers Network, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, would effectively regulate coal ash as hazardous waste, with the associated safeguards for storage, handling, transport and disposal.

There are two ways to let U.S. EPA know where you stand on this question. One is to join citizens from all over the Midwest to speak out at a public hearing that will be conducted on Thursday, September 16, at the Hilton Chicago, 720 South Michigan Avenue. If you are in the Champaign-Urbana area you can arrange for carpooling to the hearing by contacting Traci Barkley ( or 344-2371). You can guarantee yourself time to speak there by pre-registering at The other is to submit written comments to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson through Sierra Club at

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Enjoying a wildlife friendly home landscape

Enjoying a wildlife friendly home landscape

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Over the years, Beth Chato has traveled to see birds all over the globe, and she has a life list of some 2,000 species to prove it. But she also takes great pleasure in watching birds and other wildlife at home.

Here, for example, is how she described the activity in her yard in a post to birdnotes, the email discussion list of Champaign County birders, back on August 7th: My cardinal flower and my nectar feeder are buzzing with hummingbirds. A gang of young cardinals is sunbathing and snacking on my sunflower seed. A very tame catbird keeps an eye on me if I am outside. At least three pair of goldfinch go through a lot of niger seed. A busy family of house wrens and one of Carolina wrens patrol the bushes for insects. Mourning doves, house sparrows, and house finches clean up below the feeder. Yesterday I had my first fall warbler, an American redstart. I almost forgot the resident robins.

If you didn’t know better, you might think Chato was describing the activity on a roomy spread somewhere out in the country. But she and her husband, John, have lived in the same home on a standard city lot in west Urbana for forty years. The richness of activity in their yard demonstrates what’s possible when people maintain landscapes with wildlife in mind.

Chato provides food for birds via all of the usual methods. She puts out a nectar feeder for hummingbirds in late April, when the ruby-throats return, and keeps it filled into November, on the chance a western species rare to our area might find it during migration. She also maintains the seed feeders alluded to in her email, including a tube filled with niger for the finches, and a squirrel-proof hanging feeder with a standard blend of seed for cardinals, sparrows and the like. During the winter she brings downy woodpeckers and nuthatches into view with a suet feeder.

These food sources complement the food Chato provides by means of the plants she grows in her yard, where only a portion in the center—about a third of the total area—is kept in turf grass. Cardinal flower and other native perennials, mist flower, brown-eyed Susan, and woodland phlox among them, are sources of nectar and pollen that help sustain insects, and they flourish without the use of fertilizers or pesticides. A rich mix of taller vegetation, including shrubs, such as grey dogwood, and a black cherry tree provide further food for wildlife, as well as places for birds to perch and nest.

When Chato wants to bring hard-to-see songbirds down from the treetops for a closer look, she attaches her garden hose to a mister, which creates a fine spray they can’t seem to resist, especially during dry spells.Two other fixtures in the yard provide wildlife more constant access to water, a repurposed concrete laundry sink, which is set in the ground to make a small pond, a decorative fountain powered by a solar panel on the roof of the garage.

A human visitor at the Chatos might wonder why they leave a small dead tree standing near their patio, or why they keep a heap of sticks in a corner obscured by shrubs. But the purpose is obvious to hummingbirds, which like a bare branch to rest on, and to white-throated sparrows, which in winter take refuge from the weather and predators in the brush pile.

If you are interested in tips on improving your own yard as wildlife habitat, check out the “Garden for Wildlife” pages at the National Wildlife Federation’s Web site. The Chato’s yard is certified through the program—maybe yours could be, too.