Thursday, March 13, 2014

Speak out to protect the Middle Fork

Speak out to protect the Middle Fork

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If you’ve canoed or fished the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, you probably already understand why people who love it worked so hard for its inclusion in the “National Wild and Scenic Rivers” system. And to date it’s still the only Illinois waterway with that designation.

The Middle Fork is distinguished from most other streams in east central Illinois by its rock and gravel bed and its remarkably clean water. It supports a great diversity of fish—from tiny, colorful darters to larger sport fish such as channel catfish and smallmouth bass—as well as mussels, crayfish and a variety of other invertebrates.

[Above, author with a nice Middle Fork smallmouth. Photo by G.K. Appler. Below, satellite view showing proximity of ash ponds to river.]

In recent years river otters have thrived on the Middle Fork, thanks to reintroduction by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and bald eagles now regularly nest along the river, too. In all, it provides habitat for 24 species that are threatened or endangered, and it’s connected with three areas designated as state nature preserves because of their importance to rare species.

What most people don’t see as they recreate on the Middle Fork is the “accident” waiting to happen at the site of the now shuttered Dynegy power plant just north of Kickapoo State Park—that would be the three ponds where coal ash produced when the plant was operating is stored.

What’s wrong with coal ash? It contains high levels of harmful heavy metals—arsenic, lead and zinc among them—that can poison wildlife and threaten human health.

Traci Barkley, water resources scientist with Prairie Rivers Network, points out that there are already problems at the Dynegy site on the Middle Fork. Among them, the groundwater adjacent to and underlying the coal ash ponds is contaminated with coal ash pollutants, and that groundwater is connected to the river. In addition, the ponds were established over mine voids, so their walls are destabilized by subsidence.

Worse still, two natural behaviors of the river, which are beyond effective control of Dynegy or anyone else, virtually guarantee that coal ash stored in the floodplain will wind up in the river itself eventually. Rivers move. The Middle Fork is meandering toward the coal ash ponds, and attempts to control it with rock structures have failed. The streambed is now only a stone’s throw from the closest of the coal ash ponds. And rivers flood. When they do, they mobilize just about everything they encounter, with no regard for human arrangements on the landscape.

Sadly, you don’t have to imagine what it looks like when a coal ash pond situated next to a river fails; instead, you can just search on the Web for photos of the Dan River in North Carolina. Early last month, a Duke Energy pond released 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan, poisoning more than 70 miles of river. (For starters, Appalachian Voices, a North Carolina-based environmental nonprofit group has a photo set at

Dynegy has proposed a plan for closing its coal ash ponds on the Middle Fork that would leave its waste in place under a heavy cover, but Prairie Rivers Network and others are asking that the state protect the public interest by requiring something more. They want Dynegy’s coal ash removed from the floodplain and stored in a lined landfill cell. That would prevent further groundwater contamination or the occurrence of a tragedy like the one on the Dan River.

Find out how you can lend your voice to this effort, and to the broader fight to strengthen the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on coal ash ponds, by visiting Prairie Rivers Network

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Appreciating Illinois amphibians and habitats that support them

Appreciating Illinois amphibians and habitats that support them

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It may be too early in the year to contemplate April showers bringing May flowers. But in much of Illinois heavy rains in late February and early March trigger an astonishing and ancient natural phenomenon—the annual congregation of amphibians in the waters where they breed.

The participants in the initial phase of this aquatic love fest, which begins in water cold enough to stun people, include frogs that are known by their vocalizations—spring peepers [pictured], whose once-per-second ascending peeps [IDNR audio] can be heard day and night, and western chorus frogs, whose call is often compared to the sound produced by running a stick over the teeth of a comb [IDNR audio].

These vocal frogs are joined in the frigid water by other more secretive amphibians. To me, the most fascinating of these are the eight species of salamanders that are known collectively as mole salamanders.

In central Illinois the most common member of this family is the six-inch-long smallmouth salamander [pictured], a blackish creature with blue and grey markings that give it a marbled appearance. The eastern tiger salamander can be found here, too, although I have to admit I’ve never seen one. A tiger salamander may grow to more that a foot in length, and it is marked by yellow spots that cover more and more of its body as it ages. You may or may not remember it, but the tiger salamander was elected the official state amphibian of Illinois in a 2004 contest sponsored by then Lieutenant Governor, Pat Quinn.

As their group name suggests, mole salamanders spend most of the year underground. There they move about in natural gaps, and the tunnels and burrows created by small mammals. They feed on a variety of invertebrates, including earthworms, slugs, and insects.

In the spring, though, as the earth thaws and the ice recedes, rainy nights bring mole salamanders above ground, and they trundle overland seeking the ephemeral pools where they were born. Ephemeral pools are wetlands that hold water far enough into the summer for amphibian larvae to mature, but which dry up at some point in most years. This characteristic prevents fish from becoming established there, and that’s important because fish eat amphibian eggs and young. [Pictured is an ephemeral pool at the Urbana Park District's Busey Woods.]

If you were to shine a light into such a pool on a spring night you would be amazed at how many salamanders you can see, and surprised at how gracefully they swim. You might also be interested to see how many other forms of life are active in such cold water—delicate, inch-long fairy shrimp, ferocious diving beetles, and more.

Looking into an ephemeral pool during the day you might see amphibian eggs, held together in a mass with a jelly-like substance, and attached to twigs or other underwater structure.

While it is still possible to find ephemeral pools where you can witness the springtime congregation of amphibians in Illinois, it’s not easy. More than 90 percent of the wetland acres that once existed in the state have been lost to agriculture and urbanization, and only a tiny fraction (0.05%) of the state’s historic wetlands persist in relatively undisturbed condition.

Whether future generations have the opportunity to experience the springtime awakening of life in ephemeral pools depends on whether our generation acts to preserve and restore them.