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State and local organizations share mission to maintain water quality

Friends of Kickapoo Creek President and Founder Jack Myrna speaks with a group of school children at the Sun Foundation's Clean Water Celebration at the Peoria Civic Center.
Collin Schopp
Friends of Kickapoo Creek President and Founder Jack Myrna speaks with a group of school children at the Sun Foundation's Clean Water Celebration at the Peoria Civic Center.

Organizations from the state, county and community level all brought the roles they play in protecting clean water sources to the Peoria Civic Center Monday.

The Sun Foundation’s Clean Water Celebration is an annual event providing an opportunity for kids to learn more about protecting the environment and the world’s waterways. Karen Zuckerman is the chair of the Sun Foundation’s navigating committee.

“It’s important that we learn from the beginning that there are things that we do that affect the entire world,” Zuckerman said. “Because water is connected. It goes from one space to another. It doesn’t stop here in Peoria. It travels down the Illinois River, to the Mississippi River, to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Zuckerman says the theme of the celebration this year is “water connects us all.” The exhibits and concerns represented throughout the event aren’t just about the way water connects us, but what’s in the water that we use every day.

One contemporary water quality issue Zuckerman expands on is the use of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, or PFAS. These common manufacturing chemicals, sometimes called “forever chemicals,” are used in a wide variety of household products.

“We didn’t realize that it would be persistent and they don’t go away,” Zuckerman said. “We found out and so, as a result, now we’re dealing with another problem we created for ourselves.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, announced the first ever proposed limits on PFAS levels in drinking water last week. Implementing the regulations is expected to be costly, but the EPA says PFAS levels can build up over time and open the door to a variety of health risks, including fertility issues, developmental disabilities in children and a number of different cancers.

However, legislative efforts to improve water quality aren't happening exclusively on the federal level. A bill assigned to the Illinois General Assembly Energy and Environment Committee last week would create a State Water Plan Task Force, to create and publish a state plan for addressing water quality related needs at least once every 10 years. Additionally, another bill would require the Illinois EPA to regularly monitor the quality of one of the state’s largest sources of drinking water, Lake Michigan.

Kristi Morris, an environmental education leader with the Illinois EPA, says the greatest challenge to maintaining water quality in the state is nonpoint source pollution.

“It’s basically anything that can run into the water,” Morris said. “It can be sediment, it can be nutrients, it can be pesticides, anything. It can just be general pollution or oil or anything that gets into the water and causes issues with the health of a water body.”

Morris says there are several solutions to avoid contributing to the problem: test your soil for runoff if you live near a body of water, be careful not to overuse fertilizer, don’t throw motor oil and other contaminants into sewer systems.

On a local level, some organizations take direct action to clean up the area’s waterways. The Friends of Kickapoo Creek spend at least one day of every warm summer month to floating six to 10 miles down the Kickapoo Creek and gathering trash.

President and Founder Jack Myrna says the creek is an important part of the Timber Creek watershed.

“We’re hoping to get kids familiar with the watershed and make sure that they understand that every piece of trash or any lawn chemical that’s going on their lawn is basically running off into our home watershed,” Myrna said. “We just want to get the word out that this is a very special thing we’ve got going here.”

Myrna says he believes organizing on a local, community level is effective for addressing environmental issues.

“We were just a bunch of kids that loved fishing and canoeing on the creek,” he said. “And now we’re here and it feels amazing that people are willing to donate money and provide canoes for us and help more people get on the creek to do what we’re doing.”

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.