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Water resources panel points to complex tangle of challenges

"Illinois River Late April 2011 From Seneca Illinois" by kendoman26 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Illinois water issues are legion. They are pressing. And those who deal with those issues face serious challenges meeting them.

Rapidly shifting science, a legacy of underfunded agencies not suited to the task of rapid change, a population reluctant to engage on many of the issues, and an environment that is changing too fast complicate all the other elements.

Taken one by one, these issues present difficulties in assuring water quality and supply, and evidence. Taken together, panelists at a discussion held recently by the Center for a Sustainable Water Future at Illinois State University, paint a bewilderingly complex tangle of interrelated challenges.

Christine Davis is the manager of the watershed management section of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA).

Of late, environmental issues have begun to rise in legislative priorities. Davis said there's more money flowing now than she's seen her entire career. But there also is a three-decade legacy of neglect of her agency — she said the IEPA is not able to be proactive because it has half the people it had in 1990.

“Having gone from 1,300 staff down to 700 staff is not a good thing when you're trying to stay ahead of things that you've never even imagined in your life,” said Davis.

While staff has diminished, the number of programs has not. Davis said the majority of her co-workers spend most of their time implementing programs developed 20 to 30 years ago. These are huge programs on water quality monitoring, problem remediation, and education and outreach. She said staff can barely keep up on programs, let alone science.

“Which is scary because if our problems are things that we've identified in the last five years, then the (older) programs that we are using to guide me and my co-workers on how we get things done — we're missing things,” said Davis.

Take for example, polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, long-lasting chemicals that linger in the environment and contaminate water, food and people. Davis said she tells program administrators she remembers the good old days when the agency actually had technical advisors to ask questions such as what are PFAS?

“And they're looking at me saying, 'Well, congratulations. You're now our expert'. And I'm like, Oh, good grief. Our state is in trouble. If people are depending on me to tell them what climate changes are,” said Davis.

The EPA deals with water quality. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) deals with water quantity. Wes Catoor is with the department's Office of Water Resources. He said the last state water plan came out in 1984, close to four decades ago. And he wondered if most people in the state have ever heard of it.

“It was worked on for about 10 years and then it kind of got side-barred with other priorities shortage of staff. My theory is, and it was before my time so I'm speculating, the flood of ‘93 happened and it just hasn't stopped flooding since, it seems like,” said Catoor.

Currently, he said there is a new draft plan online for a public comment period through the end of the month. When published, perhaps in November, it will be kept online and updated regularly. Catoor said there's a new emphasis on social environmental justice in it, and the report presents opportunities to reach out to the General Assembly and other stakeholders to make sure this water plan doesn't go on a shelf to gather dust.

He said changes in it will absolutely be needed over time, too. Take, for instance, goals to reduce phosphorus and nitrates in water that flows to the Gulf of Mexico. Those nutrients helped create a dead spot in the Gulf that has no oxygen or life in the water. For years, Illinois made progress toward that goal. Lately, nutrient runoff and soil loss levels have risen, not fallen

“Climate change really wasn't factored into those goals set. And with all the erosion occurring…the annual rainfalls increased some, but the real impact is we're seeing higher intensity, short duration storms which leads to excessive erosion. Just the amount of sediment moving now, I think, is greatly increased,” said Catoor.

And he said it's not clear how much climate change will continue to shift nutrient runoff numbers. Society has done a lot to reduce point source pollution, but runoff comes from a lot of places, and there is no one thing to do to move the needle.

Aquatic geologist Krista Kirkham of the Nature Conservancy said even some flood control measures that work most of the time have begun failing because there is simply too much water in peak periods. Kirkham said her agency also found out through a long-term study of drainage in the Mackinaw River Watershed near Colfax in McLean County, that some other supposed solutions were not working.

Filter strips, strip tillage, and grass waterways on farmland are good for slowing down water, but had no effect on nutrient runoff there. The reason is the whole watershed has extensive drainage tiling and people need to intercept the water where it exits the tile system.

“And one way to do that is through constructed wetlands that specifically intercept tile drainage water, allow it to go through this process called denitrification, which reduces nitrate levels before it goes into the creek,” said Kirkham.

She said the problem is wetlands are expensive and they don't work everywhere, so people have to be judicious about placing them. The City of Bloomington, for example, has spent more than two decades accumulating drainage data.

Joe Darter with the city water department said the agency now has a computer program that will model nutrient runoff that is shaping city efforts to reduce nitrates and phosphorus in the watershed that drains into the city water supply: lakes Bloomington and Evergreen. He said they've applied for an IEPA grant to build a wetland, but will also take other measures to reduce runoff.

“We know where the hot spots are in the watershed. We are focusing our efforts to get cover crops and if we can cover just a small percentage of our watershed with cover crops, we will be able to see a bigger bank for a buck,” said Darter, adding the city is putting $60,000 into that cover crop incentive program. Even that is complicated.

“If a farmer is in our watershed, and they're not part of a federal program, or another state program, then they can come to us and we will find them, up to I think, it's $55 an acre," he said.

Dartner said the city also wants to dredge a bit in both lakes to reduce sediment. Even when the experts agree on a fix, and if there is money for it, and if regulators can respond quickly, the missing ingredient is often the public.

The Nature Conservancy’s Kirkham said some farmers won't even talk to her or her organization. Catoor of the IDNR said a trusted messenger is key for grassroots level change. And Davis of the IEPA said public education and outreach is important on a societal level as well, so they don't lose half their target audience.

“We have to move slow, and we need to do it in the right way so that we don't annoy the citizens of Illinois. You watch what happened with COVID where a lot of people did a lot of good things trying to protect us all and just annoyed the heck of everybody else,” said Davis.

That consensus isn't there on water issues in many cases. Davis wondered why safe drinking water isn't valued, or is significantly undervalued.

“The people that we talk to, in most cases come in and say you owe me clean water! And I don't want to have to pay for it. Or I don't want to have to pay a lot for it. Why in Illinois or the United States as a whole, is something that is relevant to every moment of every day of our life one of the cheapest things that people want to pay for,” said Davis.

For instance, she said there isn't even a quality map of all the streams and stream systems in Illinois because it hasn't been funded in the past.

All the panelists said the way forward is complicated and needs an elaborate network of partnerships among non-for-profit groups, farmers, and the rest of the public to make sure Illinois water stays drinkable and the environment stable.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.