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Illinois River Data May Help Scientists Better Understand Water Pollution Issues

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
In this Aug. 22, 2012, A boat is seen dredging the Illinois River south of Havana, Ill.

If you ever lose sight of the fact that everything on this planet is connected, just take a walk down to the banks of the Illinois River.<--break->

You can easily see that connection in a passing barge as it chugs along the waterway that connects the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and onto the Gulf of Mexico. Many of those barge containers are filled with central Illinois corn.

Not as easy to see as the containers themselves is the nutrient runoff that leaches into the river by growing that corn. It’s this runoff that connects our region’s agriculture industry to the marine ecosystem and fishing industries in the gulf.

Chad Wagner, a program coordinator with the U.S. Geological Survey, said, “The (Illinois River) basin is also estimated to be one of the largest geographic sources of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus to the Gulf of Mexico.”

Those nutrients contribute to the so-called “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, an area where algae blooms choke off oxygen supplies for marine life.

Because of these critical commercial and ecological connections, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has chosen the Illinois River Basin as the third in a group of 10 U.S.-integrated water basins where the survey is launching the Next Generation Water Observing System.

Historically, the USGS has provided key data to the agencies and decision-makers working on water quality issues. Those data are currently generated by thousands of monitoring technologies in streams, rivers, and wells throughout the country.

But Wagner said a lack of data limits the full potential of those monitoring systems.

“So, it’s similar to buying a new iPhone, right, and only using it to make phone calls or text messages. We’ve got these really cool modern tools that can help us to understand our vulnerability to water resource issues, but we can’t fully use them because we don’t have enough data,” said Wagner.

The USGS says the program will include the installation of dense arrays of sensors at selected sites to provide the agency with state-of-the-art measurement capabilities. Wagner said the Illinois River basin is ideal for learning how to scale the program nationally, especially as it pertains to nutrient reduction strategies.

“We really were targeting for this third basin, for it to be a Midwestern watershed and primarily with nutrient delivery and harmful algal bloom issues that really would allow our understanding of the science related to those issues to expand," Wagner said.

“That’s an exciting opportunity for the State of Illinois, and it dovetails quite nicely with an update to the state water plan," added Loren Wobig, the Office of Water Resources director for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources IDNR).

The revision of that State Water Plan is itself newsworthy: the last update was completed 36 years ago by a task force appointed by then-Gov. Jim Thompson.

“It was high time to create an update to that plan,” said Wobig. “There are some improvements that have been made and new challenges that have emerged...particularly with an emphasis on social and environmental justice issues.”

This week, IDNR is holding a series of virtual public outreach sessions to get input on the 13 priority areas the agency has outlined for the revised plan.

The USGS data also may come in handy for researchers such as Pete Fandel, an agriculture professor at Illinois Central College. Understanding and mitigating nutrient runoff is central to the research underway on the college’s 70-acre farm.

“The water out of those two fields goes through a bioreactor. Microbes in the soil then use the nitrogen as a food source to help digest that large carbon source that you fed them which is either corn cobs or the wood chips,” said Fandel.

“More and better data is always helpful. No doubt about it,” said Robert Hirschfeld, a water policy specialist for Prairie Rivers Network. “What we need as well as data is the political will to do what’s necessary to protect our water.” 

Prairie Rivers Network is promoting the public outreach sessions for the State Water Plan to farmers who  are a key group, with the power to drive sustainable change in water resource management.

Fandel also is a farmer.

“I mean most farmers, we view ourselves as caretakers of the land,” he said. “So whatever we can do to prolong that soil as a natural resource. The water quality aspect as well, you know we don’t want to lose stuff out of our fields that's going to get into our water supply or get into the Illinois River.”

In any case, it seems a tide of improved science, policy, and practice could soon converge for the lasting health of the Illinois River Basin.

To learn more about the USGS program, click here. And to find links to participate in this week’s virtual outreach sessions for the State Water Plan, click here.

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