Thursday, May 15, 2014

Study by U of I Geology graduate student confirms effectiveness of soil conservation practices

Study by U of I Geology graduate student confirms effectiveness of soil conservation practices

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From a distance, it might seem there’s little mystery involved with nutrient pollution in waterways that flow through the intensively farmed landscapes of the American Midwest. Farmers put fertilizer on fields, and some of it ends up in streams when it rains.

But how does fertilizer “end up” in streams?

To answer that question you might want a detective. Or better still, a scientist who operates like one.

Enter Conor Neal, with his newly minted Master’s degree in Geology from the U of I. Over the past year and a half, he has been working with Department of Geology Professor Alison Anders to figure out how one key nutrient, phosphorous, is transported from the surrounding landscape into the lower reach of Wildcat Slough, a tributary that feeds into the Sangamon River just south of Fisher.

How does nutrient migration involve geology, you ask? It’s in the fine sediment. As Neal and Anders explained it to me, some nutrients, such as nitrogen, dissolve easily in water and are thus carried in solution. Others, including phosphorous, prefer to attach to particles of soil. Fine sediment—defined by geologists as silt and clay—is the most important of these, since fine sediment particles offer so much surface area. In short, says Neal: “Fine sediment carries phosphorous. Find the source of fine sediment in a stream, and you find the source of phosphorous.”

The fieldwork for Neal’s project was pretty straightforward. Using satellite images he identified the six types of land cover in the watershed, 99 percent of which (literally) is devoted to row-crop agriculture. The five much smaller types included forested uplands, forested floodplain, pasture, channel banks and grass.

Then he took samples of fine sediment from those areas. This involved simply digging up a sandwich bag’s worth of soil with a garden trowel. These samples were to serve as a reference for samples of sediment taken from Wildcat Slough during spring floods (since that’s when the water carries significant amounts of suspended sediment).

Finally, he collected suspended sediment from Wildcat Slough during heavy rains between March and June of last year. He did so using a simple device called a sediment trap, which is a four-foot-long piece of PVC pipe fitted with a cone-shaped nose that’s anchored to a fencepost in the stream. As flowing water enters the trap through the nose its velocity decreases dramatically, which causes whatever fine sediment it carries to drop out before it exits through a tube at the tail.

[Photo by Katelyn Zatwarnicki shows Neal installing the sediment trap in Wildcat Slough.]

Like detectives, scientists often have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to find when they begin an investigation. In the case of Neal’s study, he and Anders both anticipated the fine sediment suspended in the lower reach of Wildcat Slough during spring floods would be traceable to the agricultural fields in the watershed—after all, that’s where the bare soil is.

But Neal’s analysis showed something very different; less than 5 percent of the fine sediment collected in the stream was traceable to farm fields. A much greater portion, roughly half, came directly from the channel banks, with the rest contributed by forested and grassy areas. Why that’s so offers a new mystery to be investigated.

What these results suggest, says Anders, is that the soil conservation practices employed by farmers in that part of the watershed are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, keeping the soil on the fields and out of the stream. In doing so they’re also preventing phosphorous pollution.

When we spoke, Conor Neal emphasized to me his great debt of gratitude to the families who allowed him onto their land to do field work; without their cooperation such a study could not have been done.

Neal’s project is a precursor to a much larger, five-year effort involving UI researchers from multiple disciplines. They will be collaborating with partners from other universities and conservation agencies to understand water, nutrient and sediment transport in the Upper Sangamon River Basin.

The ultimate success of this project, called the “Intensively Managed Landscapes Critical Zone Observatory,” will also depend on partnerships with local landowners, farm operators, land managers and urban planners. I’ll return it in this column as it develops, but in the meantime more information is available at

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Support monarch butterflies by planting milkweed at home

Support monarch butterflies by planting milkweed at home

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If there’s a North American insect that qualifies for the label “charismatic,” it’s the monarch butterfly. People who recognize no other butterfly by name know monarchs, and many even remember some of the things that set them apart from other insects: the fact that each fall a cohort migrates from as far north as Canada to a single mountain forest in central Mexico; the fact that monarch caterpillars are unpalatable to would-be predators because they feed exclusively on milkweed plants; the fact that their striking coloration as both caterpillars and adults warns predators away, and is mimicked by other butterflies that are not actually toxic.

Fewer people are aware that, like many other charismatic creatures, monarchs are declining rapidly as a species—by a staggering 90 percent over the past two decades. The wintering population of monarchs in Mexico is estimated according to the amount of forest they occupy, and this year that area was only 1.7 acres. That’s a record low, and it’s less than half of last year’s area, which was itself a record low. Worse, these low numbers are in line with long-term trends.

When faced with such news, many people ask first, “What can individuals do to help?” The frustrating answer to that question is typically, “nothing.” No matter how far a person goes to reduce her own carbon footprint, for example, she’s not going to preserve polar bear habitat on her own.

[Photo by author depicts an adult monarch nectaring on butterfly milkweed in his home garden. Butterfly milkweed is even more important as a source of food for monarch caterpillars, which feed exclusively on milkweed.]

The case is somewhat different with monarchs, though, because people can provide important habitat for them in home landscaping—just by cultivating some milkweed for monarch caterpillars to feed on as they mature.

Before you turn your nose up at the idea of installing a plant with a name that includes “weed,” be aware that some members of the milkweed family are quite pretty and well-behaved, completely at home even in the most conventional flower garden. That’s especially true of the species commonly called “butterfly milkweed.” Butterfly milkweed is an easy-to-grow perennial characterized by attractive foliage and bright orange flowers. I’ve planted everywhere I’ve lived over the past two decades, and the monarchs have never failed to find it.

Fortunately for residents of east central Illinois, an opportunity to buy butterfly milkweed is upon us. It’s the annual native plant sale conducted by the local land conservation group Grand Prairie Friends. I spoke recently with James Ellis, board president for the group, and he assured me they hundreds of butterfly milkweed plants ready to go.

In addition, he pointed out, they have also cultivated another milkweed species for sale this year, Sullivant’s milkweed, which is a taller, slightly wilder looking cousin whose flowers come out in a pinkish-purple cluster three inches across.

I should emphasize that in addition to the two milkweeds, more than 60 other species of perennial plants native to our region will be available at the sale, including wide varieties of both grasses and flowers. While these may not host monarch caterpillars, they benefit other native insects in ways exotic plants do not. This, in turn, provides an important benefit to all wildlife of our area, because insects are a source of food for so many other creatures.

Details about the sale including a complete list of plants available are can be found at

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Faith in Place leader has been a catalyst for change

Faith in Place leader has been a catalyst for change

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The coming weeks promise to be a whirlwind for Brian Sauder of Champaign. In early May he will be licensed toward ordination in the Mennonite Church U.S.A., which means the church affirms his calling to minister on behalf of creation as a pastor. Shortly thereafter he will be awarded a Master’s in Business Administration degree from the UI
College of Business.

Then in June he will move with his wife to Chicago and begin the next stage of his professional career as executive director of Faith in Place, a statewide nonprofit whose mission is “to help people of faith understand that issues of ecology and economy—of care for Creation—are at the forefront of social justice.” Of course, this is all wonderful news for Brian and people who have the good fortune to be directly connected with him, but why would others care?

The answer to that question is best explained by looking at a few of the ways people in east central Illinois has been benefited from his presence over the past five years. During that time, Sauder has served our community by establishing a branch office of Faith in Place here and served as a catalyst for change of the best sort.

[Photo, left to right: FIP staffers Doug Williams, Rev. Cindy Shepherd and Brian Sauder with Pastor Michael Crosby of the First Mennonite Church.]

Have you heard of the Sola Gratia Farm? It’s a four-acre produce garden at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Urbana, a cooperative venture between the Church and Faith in Place in community supported agriculture. Sola Gratia offers shareholders the opportunity to eat fresh food grown locally using natural practices. And it benefits the community in many important ways. Chief among them, at least 10 percent of the farm’s production is shared with the Eastern Illinois Food Bank and other local hunger abatement programs.

Obviously, such an operation depends on the dedication and hard work of many people. But in his outreach role with Faith in Place, Sauder provided much of the leadership and energy that was needed to transform Sola Gratia from a good idea into reality.

Instigation by Sauder was also important in another soon-to-be-highly-visible project undertaken by a local faith community, installation of a solar photovoltaic array on the First Mennonite Church in Urbana. That’s expected to account for a significant percentage of electricity used at the facility once it is completed in June. (Look for the full story in this column then.)

In addition to these larger scale projects, Sauder has provided support and direction for numerous other congregations that have undertaken smaller scale efforts to enact their values by conserving resources.

Sauder also deserves credit for his environmental advocacy on behalf of Faith in Place. In cooperation with representatives from other statewide groups, he helped ensure that the Illinois legislation on fracking adopted last summer contained some of the strongest protections against fracking-related water pollution in the country. And together with others at Faith in Place, he claims the honor of bringing the largest, most diverse group of citizens to the environmental lobby day in Springfield each year.

When he is called upon to tell his own story Sauder emphasizes the centrality of faith in the choices he has made. “As a first-generation college student from a small town, I found the bad news about the state of the environment overwhelming at times. But I kept myself grounded by asking ‘What does my faith have to say about that?’”

Since then, he has lived the answer. I know I speak for many others in wishing him the best as he continues to do so, in Chicago and beyond.