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How's The Water? Part 5

Water improvement Solutions:


One of the ways to reduce the amount of nitrates and phosphates getting into the drinking water supply from farm fertilizer is to construct what are called wetlands at the edges of farms.

Wetlands are, as the name suggests, watery land areas where both water and vegetation serve as natural filters for pollutants before they enter feeder streams for Lakes Bloomington and Evergreen, the main reservoirs for drinking water. There are four of these wetlands in McLean County, one on city property and three on private land.

So far, the program has reduced the amount of pollutants getting into the streams by 30 percent in some areas, but by as much as 80 percent in others. WGLT's Judy Valente took a tour of a wetland northeast of Towanda with Krista Kirkham of The Nature Conservancy, a private conservation group that is working with the city and federal government to monitor water quality.

"This is a CP39 construction project, and actually it's one of the first built in the state," said Kirkham. "CP39 is a conservation reserve program of the farm bill. It hasn't been used much in the state and we are excited to be a part of it." 

The Nature Conservancy has been doing research at the site since 2014. Almost the entire basin is row-crop agriculture.

"These are some of the issues we're dealing with when it comes to nutrients coming into Lake Bloomington," said Kirkham. "But these CP39 projects are built to trap and treat tile drainage water, which is the main process used here. These wetlands are designed to allow some of the water to be denitrafied before it enters Money Creek."

Without the wetlands development, it's estimated that 50 percent to 80 percent more toxins would be present and flowing into Lake Bloomington.

The wetlands program is voluntary and farmers receive grants from the federal government to take a certain amount of their acreage out of production. One wetland has a nature trail on city of Bloomington property along Six Mile Creek, about a mile and half west of Hudson. Three more wetlands are slated for construction in the coming year, all in the Lexington-LeRoy area.

Friends of EverBloom

The search for drinking water is one of the driving motivations for people, and the scramble looks to be getting even uglier as the climate goes through changes. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says this past October was the warmest on record, and was the eighth month in 2015 to break heat records.  All of that will affect rain and snowfall, and water reserves. Right now the city of Bloomington has an adequate supply from it's two lakes, but the lakes are getting smaller as they fill with silt.

Jerry Martoglio is a member of the conservation group, Friends of EverBloom, dedicated to preserving quality and quantity of the water in the two city lakes.  He says shore erosion is a big problem, and points out some gradually sloping sandy land along the edge of Lake Bloomington.

"Those banks were at least 20 feet further out this way 40 years ago. A sure way to tell is when you get up close, shallow water comes out here 20 feet. At one point in time, those banks were straight up and down and it went straight to deep water. And it's not necessarily boats either, it's mostly wind," said Martoglio.

The Friends of EverBloom are involved in efforts to mitigate the erosion, and head off the accumulation of silt that's displacing the water. Martoglio turns his boat toward one of the creeks that feed into Lake Bloomington to showone of the projects the group is working on to create fish habitat.

"We have a young lady in our group who loves to do stream monitoring. She has permission to go on a couple of our tributary streams into the lake and watershed with chest waders and dip net. She's able to sample the life in the creek, whether it be the salamanders or hellgrammites or caddisflies or anything. By seeing what is in that stream, you can determine what the health of the stream is," he added.

Because if the water going into the lake's in good condition, the water coming out will be better too.   Martoglio says the Friends of EverBloom are also working to keep sediment from compromising the lake's capacity.

"Last year, we finished up work on T2 or tributary 2 at Lake Evergreen. Part of that project was rip-rapping the out curve of the lake and we actually built ripples across it so the waters that are coming through will be able to drop some of its sediment into the ripple area and build them up. That was a successful project and we have more that are awaiting funding," Martoglio added. 

Rip-rap is loose stone used to stabilize the shore and is often used to prepare a foundation for a breakwater.  Martoglio said the silt falls through tiny holes before it can enter the lake.  He said it's especially efficient if there is an eddy present to swish the water about.

Martoglio says it's not only a matter of keeping things like silt, chemical and fertilizer run off out of the lakes, there's also the matter of what goes in. He said for that the group has introduced vegetation into the lakes. 

Individuals are working together trying to maintain the city's water supply, and recreation areas.  The difference Friends of EverBloom makes is small, but by working with other entities like the water department and fish and wildlife, Jerry Martoglio feels their contributions will keep the clean water flowing.

The Illinois State Water Survey this year noted that because the Bloomington system would not be able to fulfill the community’s current demand with 90 percent confidence, the drought vulnerability of the system is classified as "at-risk."

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Cover Crops

An increasingly popular method among farmers is to plant cover crops as a way to preserve nutrients in soil and purity in water runoff. 

These secondary crops, such as oats, canola and cereal rye, were once planted after the main harvest to provide feed for livestock. Now, the cover crops are gaining fresh attention for their natural ability to improve soil structure and keep nutrients in place.

WGLT's Charlie Schlenker explored this process with Dave Gentry, a cover crop expert with Bloomington-based Growmark.

“If cover crops are incorporated into the soil in spring, both water runoff and soil erosion are significantly less than with no cover crop,”Gentry said.

Illinois farmers have seen the benefits in the nutrients saved and soil tilth. Soil tilth is the ability for the soil to remain soft and not hard. It is a better environment in which to plant corn and soybeans. Gentry says more and more farmers are starting to see those benefits besides economic ones.

“One of the things we found with cover crops is that we can drain the soils a little quicker in the Spring allowing quicker access to the fields,” said Gentry. “That’s a benefit.”

The voluntary practice of planting cover crops is being pushed as part of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which seeks to keep fertilizer and other agricultural chemicals from running off into the streams and tributaries that feed the state's main waterways.

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Kathryn Foster/Joan Brehm QA

The establishment of wetlands, shore stabilization and the planting of cover crops are just three of the methods being used to reduce the level of nitrates, phosphates and other pollutants in drinking water.

But more needs to happen to remove Lake Bloomington and Lake Evergreen--the main sources of drinking water for the city of Bloomington--from the EPA's list of impaired bodies of water. Dr. Joan Brehm, a sociologist at Illinois State University, spent the last two years studying public attitudes about water. She has come up with some actions ordinary citizens can take to both conserve water and ensure their own pollutants are not getting into lakes.

Kathryn Foster is with the Friends of EverBloom. She has helped monitor the health of both lakes for many years.

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WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio.