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Chicagoland Wed Apr 13 2011

Water Issues Critical for Illinois & the World

The recent assaults on the EPA moved me to dust off and finish some notes I hadn't had time to polish into a full-blown blog post. Because the cuts now threaten Illinois clean water infrastructure projects, however, in addition to the climate change programs that have gotten deserved attention, I'm compelled to give this a little more air.

The Current and Coming Water Crisis
On January 19, Go Green Wilmette sponsored a showing of the award-winning film Blue Gold: World Water Wars at the Wilmette Library. While the documentary didn't quite live up to the comparison with Inconvenient Truth , I'd agree with the assertion of that the topic, at least, is something everyone needs to look at, and sooner rather than later.

Blue Gold focused on the scarcity of water: what is causing it (pollution and overuse), and who is profiting from (and even contributing to) that scarcity. "Scarce?" you say? "Isn't this a watery planet?" Yes, but 97% of the earth's water is salty, with much of the remaining 3% polluted. Agriculture and industry -- the things that feed and supply an ever-growing world population -- are the major causes of that.

The availability of water as a resource, moreover, is not equally distributed. The film had disturbing footage of Mexicans trudging through the Rio Grande, from Mexico City where sewage, hospital flotsam, and even human remains pollute the canals. Water quality is so bad in the less-developed world that diseases such as cholera kill more children globally than either AIDS or war.

Meanwhile, the ability of the world's water supply to replenish itself is under assault. Sixty percent of the world's wetlands, which filter water, were destroyed in the 20th century. With surface waters polluted and drained, dependency on and pumping of subterranean groundwater is growing, so rapidly that in many areas sinkholes are forming and the land is actually sinking.

The 30 billion gallons of water being pumped out of the ground on Earth every day represent 15 times the "recharge" rate. The devastating results, shown graphically in the film, include desertification, erosion, and deforestation.

Policy is at the root of mcuh of these changes in land and water use. Urbanization has made fortunes for some while developers avoid the water issues. The 50,000 large dams worldwide change the hydrologic cycle itself.

With the overwhelming part of the water crisis man-made, and most of the causes aided and abetted by government, the remainder of the film shifted to the politics behind water use and abuse. Its conclusion? Power has gone to large water cartels. Examples from Europe to Africa, and in both Mexico (where Vincente Fox is a former general manager of Coca-Cola, who owns the largest water concession in the country) and the U.S. (including examples in nearby Wisconsin and Michigan), demonstrated compellingly the high cost when a public water resource has been turned over to private interest. Invariably, workforces are slashed, communities are disempowered, and rates are raised. This aspect of the film makes it required viewing for anyone seriously debating privatization.

Following harrowing stories of SLAPP suits against water activists in the US and actual assassination in the Third World, the film warned that nations are positioning themselves to use water, like energy, as part of security strategy, including military security. Water issues will not be solved by conservation alone, but require the courage to talk about the world economic and political system.

Protecting Local Water Reources and Wetlands
A week later, with those thoughts still in my head, I was privileged to attend a forum on "Protecting our Water Resources" put on by What Our Water's Worth. WOWW is an ongoing campaign led by the Metropolitan Planning Council and Openlands. This forum was more locally focused than Blue Gold, dealing primarily with surface waters in the Chicago area, and presenting model projects on how to protect threatened wetlands, but hit some similar notes.

Openlands' Jerry Adelmann, emceeing, opened by reminding that, despite the nearby Lake, water even in Chicago is not limitless. We get a lot of rainfall but there is inadequate retention.

Jeff Walk, the Director of Science at the Nature Conservancy in Illinois, spoke first, summarizing why natural areas are essential for regional water supply and its safety. Noting Illinois was geopolitically defined by water, he distinguished between the popular rivers and the more-often-ignored wetlands, saying, "Rivers are where waters go to move and wetlands are where they go to stop." The food for animals in rivers, however, mainly comes from outside the rivers, so drainage is important. Moreover, water for rivers comes from the ground as well as from rain.

The job of the flood plain, which includes wetlands, is to slow down the water, but our regional history has been one of narrowing and channelizing rivers at the cost of increasing big floods, making rivers and streams more "flashy" and subject to more erosion, which in turn causes sedimentation that degrades rivers. Reducing most pollution through retention/treatment is possible; he detailed the Chicago Wilderness climate action plan for nature and the Illinois wildlife action plan, and listed a number of actions people and local governments can take, such as focusing on green cities and resolving wildlife conflicts. He felt it important that residents "restore a bond with nature" rather than trying to fight and channel its forces.

Next up was Jeffrey Mengler, a senior project scientist at consulting firm Cardno Entrix. He urged action plans such as Water 2050 by CMAP, saying that if we don't, we'll be facing a "pretty good water crisis" in Chicagoland.

Key is that the recharge rate is still too low. Going into depth on the Romeoville/Lockport Prairie approach to preserving habitat for the Hine's Emerald Dragonfly, he said that the loss of species is critical not only in itself but in that species are the canaries in the coal mine.

Noting that "just because you put water back into the ground doesn't make it good groundwater" because it can be polluted, or salty, he illustrated projects such as a church parking lot where the islands are lower than the lot; Bluff Spring Fen where the effects of underground mining had to be overcome; and Carrington Reserve, where they treated water to preserve the fen. Like Walk, he urged bringing water into a community to use as a resource, not an enemy.

Dominic Kempson, a senior scientist at Stantec, helps develop projects based on "site specific biological indicators." He dwelt on the Lockport Prairie, 250 acres in the lower Des Plaines River Valley where the vegetation is still largely as it was before Europeans arrived: over 78% of the 559 plant species there are native to the area. This remnant from an earlier time supports over 300 bird species.

Kempson's technical advisory team drew on all the stakeholders (mainly governments), assessed the biology and natural infrastructure, the hydrology, the soil geology, the water (source, path, basin, and delineation), and identified the primary recharge area for groundwater as well as buffers for that area and wells that impacted it. That information was used to develop a proposed land use analysis and, in particular, the restoration of the groundwater system (since even laborious restoration of the prairie would fail if the groundwater disappeared).

He then outlined the implementation and buy-in strategies the team used to engage other stakeholders, notably the Forest Preserve, who helped get an additional 711 buffering acres transferred to the prairie.

Concluding was McHenry County Conservation District Natural Resource Manager Ed Collins, who illustrated the dechannelization of Nippersink Creekin McHenry County, starting with review of the decades-old Illinois Natural Areas Inventory that birthed the natural resource area restoration movement. Nippersink Creek had been a typical agricultural creek that between 1939 and 1967 got channelized and straightened with ten foot levees and tiling streams around it; the channel had chewed away the banks, and the original natural channel had filled with material that needed to be re-excavated. In effect, an old natural creek was rebuilt from contours archaeologically divined.

Collins called the project "incredibly successful" and done at a "reasonable cost." Since the restoration, flooding in the glacial park has virtually disappeared; the Creek is "now connected to its flood plain," meaning that "it does what a river is supposed to do, crawl out of its banks and spread out" when there's a flood. The fish index shows that species are now more diverse and the highest ever recorded; all the wildlife numbers are "way up."

But, Collins noted, with some delight, the Creek "has not stayed where we put it" but instead "made some unilateral decisions" and has moved around the flood plain, as real watercourses do when unaltered. Collins warned against manipulating ecosystems, saying, "Water is trying to give us a different message." He summed up the three previous speakers as having given a compelling argument on the "necessity not to manage water but to honor water."

Water resources are threatened with ecological destruction. Consumption sends it to the sea and drains natural areas that depend on recharge. Pollution taints what stays behind. Both presentations reminded that we need to change course, not just conserve, to keep water a sustainable public resource.

Go Green Wilmette is not a political organization, but Beth Drucker of GGW reminded those attending Blue Gold that these crises will only be addressed if, among other things, we measure our politicians by what they say, pledge to do, and actually do with respect to them. What is happening with the federal water resource protection budget right now is a juncture where such accountability is demanded.

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