Study tracks waterbird use of Chicago-area wetlands

Read the full story from the University of Illinois.

A three-year study in northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana found that – even at small scales – emergent wetlands or ponds support many wetland bird species. The study also found that, at least in the years surveyed, the level of urbanization had little effect on most of the studied species’ use of such sites, provided the right kinds of habitat were available.

EPA announces over $1 million in grant funding to University of Illinois for pollution prevention

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced over $1 million in pollution prevention, or P2, grants to the University of Illinois System. The University of Illinois Chicago Energy Resources Center will receive $350,000. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Smart Energy Design Assessment Center will receive $349,999 and the university’s Illinois Sustainable Technology Center will receive $349,197. These P2 grants are among 39 national grants made possible by President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s historic $100 million program investment. The grants will allow states and Tribes, or in this instance academic institutions, to provide businesses with technical assistance to help them implement P2 practices to prevent or reduce pollution before it is even created, while also reducing business and liability costs.

“Reducing pollution at the source, before it ever even enters the waste stream, is the best and most cost-effective way to protect the environment,” said EPA Regional Administrator Debra Shore. “Thanks to these grants, and increased funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, EPA is working with organizations like the University of Illinois System to empower communities and businesses to save money and safeguard precious natural resources.”

The University of Illinois Chicago Energy Resources Center will use its grant to provide technical assistance to 20 industrial plants in some of Chicago’s underserved communities. UIC-ERC, in partnership with the city of Chicago, will help facilities find and achieve energy and cost savings, emissions reduction, and waste reduction.

“UIC is excited to engage with the City of Chicago and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide technical assistance to manufacturing plants in the City of Chicago, including those areas of the City facing environmental injustice. The technical assistance program will focus efforts on student workforce development, reducing plant energy consumption and source emissions, and increasing plant productivity,” said Patrick Brown, senior research engineer for Energy Resources Center at University of Illinois Chicago.

“The City of Chicago congratulates the UIC Energy Resources Center for this major award from the USEPA dedicated to offering technical guidance to the industrial sector to transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions. This critical support will result in more energy efficient operations as well as reduced pollution and better air quality for our communities. We are thrilled to serve as collaborators in this effort,” said Angela Tovar, chief sustainability officer for the City of Chicago.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Smart Energy Design Assessment Center will use its grant to provide technical assistance and training for 260 businesses, including 80 businesses located in or adjacent to underserved communities.

“Green business programs are an innovative model for driving voluntary education and engagement in P2 best practices,” said Dr. Brian Deal, executive director of the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center. “They make it easier for businesses to assess and reduce their environmental footprint, while also providing recognition and a competitive platform for their achievements. SEDAC is thrilled to help integrate P2 technical assistance with national green business best practices.”

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Illinois Sustainable Technology Center will use its grant to host two training events, create a pollution prevention guidebook, and offer technical assistance to 15 Illinois manufacturing and processing facilities.

“The support that the ISTC Technical Assistance Program will provide to manufacturing operations and related industries will go a long way in reducing energy costs, water consumption, air emissions, wastewater generation, and hazardous wastes in Illinois,” said Debra Jacobson, associate director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. “At the same time, this project will benefit underserved neighborhoods by offering technical assistance to facilities that directly impact local environmental justice communities.”

Selected and awarded grantees will document and share P2 best practices they identify and develop through these grants so that others can replicate the practices and outcomes. Each selected grantee will address at least one of the National Emphasis Areas, which were established to focus resources and to create opportunities for information sharing among P2 grantees and businesses. Each selected grantee will also develop at least one case study during the grant period on P2 practices.

Read more about P2 and the P2 Grant Program.

Searching the Texas brushland for a rare, temperamental plant

The author hovers near a Zapata bladderpod specimen. Photo courtesy Sara Johnson

Read the full story from the University of Illinois.

Deep South Texas is unique. It feels vast and nomadic, sprawling in all directions with hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchland and – if you don’t count the cows or the main thruways along the Rio Grande – sparsely populated. It’s a diverse region, thanks to the confluence of semi-arid and subtropical climates that meet in central South Texas to form a mixture of grasslands and extremely dry uplands.

The Zapata bladderpod is aptly named. It inhabits the Tamaulipan thornscrub, also known as mezquital, a dry ecoregion defined by shrubs and desertlike conditions, with seasonal marshlands and intermittent streams. As we search the dense thickets of shrubs and enormous prickly pear, Opuntia lindheimeri, I begin to think these plants don’t want to be found.

Webinar: What still challenges us to detect microplastics and nanoplastics in the environment?

Nov 10, 2022, noon CST
Register here.

Microplastics have been identified in many aquatic environments and are considered as sources and transport vectors for toxic chemicals (e.g., heavy metals and POPs) or pathogenic microorganisms. In our research group, we have been investigating the colloidal properties and photochemical aging/weathering of microplastics as well as the release of potentially toxic substances from the weathered microplastics. In this presentation, I will briefly introduce my own microplastic research and primarily focus on the introduction of challenges of microplastics and nanoplastics detection and identification due to their small sizes and interferences from size-dependent and extrinsic factors such as surface contamination or coating by organic matters or additives. I will also give an overview of the latest research results utilizing various of novel technologies/techniques for separation from environmental media (e.g., water or soil) and characterization. I will also introduce a few recent studies that demonstrated the use of scanning probe microscope, AFM combined with IR/Raman, sequential pyrolysis (Pyr-GC/MS) and thermal desorption pyrolysis (TD-Pyr-GC/MS) for ultrafine plastics particle analysis.

Speaker: Wen Zhang is currently an associate professor of NJIT’s Newark College of Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering with a second appointment in the Department of Chemical and Material Engineering. Wen is a licensed Professional Engineer (P.E.) registered in the States of New Jersey and Delaware. He is an American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES) Board Certified Environmental Engineer (BCEE). Dr. Wen Zhang’s research focuses on colloidal interfaces and processes that are crucial for environmental and chemical engineering applications. His research embraces environmental behavior and interfacial processes for nanomaterials, microplastics and soft particles such as microbes and bubbles, catalytic/reactive membrane filtration systems for desalination, resource recovery and emerging contaminant removal, photocatalysis, microalgal removal and harvesting. His lastest research also expands from agricultural applications of nanobubbles to lithium recovery from spent lithium ion batteries.

Synthetic chemicals found in over 8 million Illinoisans’ drinking water

Listen to the podcast.

Synthetic chemicals are pervasive in our everyday lives. They’re in many of the products we use like fast food wrappers, cleaning products and personal care items. Even when we’re done with those things, the chemicals live on, and the impacts of that are far-reaching. A Chicago Tribune investigation earlier this year found more than 8 million people in Illinois get their drinking water from utilities where at least one forever chemical has been detected. That’s six out of every 10 Illinoisans. 

The 21st spoke to a panel of guests to hear more about the study and learn about the impacts of emerging contaminants.


John Scott 
Senior chemist with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center

Sonya Lunder 
Sierra Club’s Senior Toxics Advisor for the Clean Water, Toxic Chemicals, and Climate Resilience Program

Michael Hawthorne
Investigative Reporter, Chicago Tribune

Melanie Benesh 
Vice President of Government Affairs, Environmental Working Group

How do we measure community disaster resilience?

Read the full story from the University of Illinois.

In a new study, retired Illinois State Water Survey engineer Sally McConkey and Eric R. Larson, a professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the U. of I., examined the metrics used at a county scale for national assessments to determine whether communities are prepared to withstand and recover from natural disasters such as floods and fires. McConkey spoke to News Bureau life sciences editor Diana Yates about what they found.

Scientists to build toolkit addressing climate change and environmental justice in Chicago communities

by Lisa Sheppard, Prairie Research Institute

With new funding from NASA, a University of Illinois team of scientists will use NASA Earth science and localized social data to develop an innovative, multi-sector geospatial environmental justice toolkit for urban decision making in the Chicago region.

This two-year data integration project will leverage transdisciplinary expertise and multistakeholder leadership to address environmental inequities and empower Chicago communities to take measures to improve health and equity and reduce crime in vulnerable and marginalized environmental justice (EJ) urban communities.

The extreme heat and air quality problems caused by climate change are especially damaging for people of color and low-income residents. For example, during the infamous 1995 Chicago region heatwave, neighborhoods with large African American populations and high poverty and crime rates had the highest heat-related mortality rates.

Climate change exacerbates poverty, poor health outcomes, and disparities in healthcare access. Environmental stresses such as excessive heat along with structural racism also have been linked to higher crime rates.

“In the past few decades, the Chicago region has become polarized between the haves and the have-nots based on race, color, and income inequities,” said principal investigator Ashish Sharma, research climatologist at the Illinois State Water Survey at the U of I. “As a society we need to reduce these inequities and co-create just solutions for inclusive growth of the region.”  

He added, “these solutions need to be iteratively designed with EJ communities and regional stakeholders. At the same time, they need to be realistic and provide short-term wins to build trust in historically underinvested communities while also providing a vision for advancing long-term EJ action.”

Sharma will piggyback on his past and ongoing research efforts to study extreme heat risks and the relationship of heat with crime to address EJ issues in the Chicago region. An important feature of the data-integration project is to leverage NASA Earth science products and couple in-house-run climate model outputs over the Chicago region.

The scientists will also gather information on community-specific threats to health and equity and develop a heat vulnerability index based on community demographics, public health, land cover, and living conditions. In addition, they will map crime rates in Chicago neighborhoods and explore their relationship to heat and air quality.

The user-friendly web-based GIS toolkit, e-JUST (Environmental Justice using Urban Scalable Toolkit), will combine numerous factors, including threats from climate change, to help stakeholders, policymakers, and others make informed decisions for their communities. Urban planners can use e-JUST to determine locations for cooling centers, manage streetscapes, and develop affordable housing policies for an equitable region.

“We are using state-of-the-art datasets from NASA and multiple other sources to identify multi-faceted social vulnerabilities, priority areas, and potential solutions,” Sharma said. “What we bring to the table is our modular approach to integrate diverse spatial and temporal resolution data for empowering communities with evidence-based measures to improve health equity and reduce crime. Our design framework will allow ingesting any additional data from regional partners for robust assessment of EJ issues and planning.”

U of I information scientist Matthew Turk, a co-investigator on the project, described the toolkit as a compilation of disparate pieces of information to paint a full picture of our changing world.

“The most personal data that we can see is that data that relates to how we live our lives, about the places we live, and the future of the climate,” Turk said. “I hope to work to make an accessible toolkit that provides actionable knowledge to people who are feeling the effects of climate change.”

The toolkit will be designed to be user-friendly, scalable to smaller or larger communities, and portable so that it can be used for other cities or parts of the world. The project will be a collaboration among the scientists, community leaders, non-profits, and state agencies.

Researchers will hold town halls and workshops to boost partnerships with EJ communities and build trust in scientific methods. The outreach efforts will focus on the communities in Waukegan, Elgin, Joliet, West Chicago, Park Forest, and Westchester.

Engagement with residents and community leaders is important for scientists to learn about the challenges of lived experiences, said co-investigator Edith Makra, director of environmental initiatives for the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus in Chicago, who will lead these efforts.

“Accomplishing the goals of the project is not something we can do with data assessment alone,” Makra said. “You have to have a dialog with community members to learn about the perceived threats and perceived opportunities of environmental justice issues. This leads to an understanding of what is occurring in the community and what are the ways to address it.”

The investigators will also collaborate with researchers from the University of Illinois System, the State Climatologist’s Office, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, NASA, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Illinois Department of Corrections, City of Chicago, and community and public sector organizations.

Media contact: Ashish Sharma, 217-300-8423,

This story first appeared on the Prairie Research Institute News blog. Read the original story.

ISTC leads extensive portfolio of carbon capture projects

ISTC engineer Stephanie Brownstein gestures toward equipment for the biphasic solvent carbon capture project at Abbott Power Plant while speaking to visitors from the Department of Energy and Doosan Corporation. Photo by Travis Tate, U of I Facilities & Services.

by Trish Barker, Prairie Research Institute

Visitors from the U.S. Department of EnergyNational Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE-NETL) recently toured multiple carbon capture projects led by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC).

Because the unique geology of Illinois provides extensive potential to store carbon dioxide deep underground, the state is also an ideal location to develop, demonstrate, and deploy technologies to  capture CO2 from point sources, remove CO2 from the ambient air, and beneficially use CO2. ISTC scientists and engineers lead a number of carbon capture, removal, and use projects backed by funding from the Department of Energy.

map of ISTC carbon capture project locations across Illinois and Missouri

The tour included carbon capture projects at Abbott Power Plant at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; City Water, Light & Power in Springfield, Prairie State Generating Company in Marissa, Illinois; and the Ste. Genevieve Cement Plant in Missouri. 

Abbott Power Plant

The University’s Abbott Power Plant , a cogeneration facility that simultaneously produces both steam and electricity to meet 70-75% of the Urbana campus’s energy needs, is a partner on two ISTC-led carbon capture projects.  

ISTC led a project, supported by $3.4 million from DOE-NETL, to evaluate an innovative biphasic solvent system for its efficiency and effectiveness in absorbing CO₂ from flue gas at Abbott. The system was designed based on the testing results at the laboratory scale under a previous DOE cooperative agreement. Read more about the biphasic solvent system.

A second project is based on a mixed-salt carbon capture technology developed by SRI International. This technology is being tested at engineering scale at Abbott in a 0.5 megawatt electric (MWe) equivalent pilot campaign. This project is supported by a grant of more than $18 million from DOE-NETL. Read more about the mixed-salt capture technology.

City Water, Light & Power

ISTC leads the large-scale pilot testing of a Linde-BASF CO2 solvent-based carbon capture technology at City Water, Light & Power (CWLP) in Springfield, Illinois. When the 10-megawatt capture system is built and begins to process 5 percent of the Dallman Unit 4 flue gas, it will capture more than 90 percent of those CO2 emissions. DOE has provided $47 million for this build-operate project, and the State of Illinois has pledged an additional $20 million. Read more about the large pilot project at CWLP.

A second project led by ISTC and backed by $25 million from DOE aims to design a next-generation power plant at CWLP that both reduces emissions and captures and uses carbon dioxide. The design combines a 270-megawatt ultra-supercritical coal boiler, an 87-megawatt natural gas combustion turbine generator, a 50-megawatt energy storage subsystem, and a post-combustion carbon capture subsystem. Read more about the next-generation power plant project.

ISTC is investigating the use of CO2 captured from CWLP, as well as nutrients from wastewater treatment plants to grow algae. The cultivated high-protein Spirulina can be used in animal feeds. This engineering-scale algae project is supported by $2.5 million from DOE. Read more about the algae project

Prairie State Generating Company

ISTC leads a front-end engineering design (FEED) study to retrofit the Prairie State Generating Company (PSGC) in Marissa, Illinois, with a solvent-based post-combustion carbon capture technology from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. At 816 megawatts, this is the largest carbon capture FEED study in the world, with a system projected to be capable of capturing 8.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year.Read more about the FEED study at Prairie State Generating Company.

Kevin OBrien gestures as he describes ISTC carbon capture projects for visitors from DOE and Doosan
ISTC director Kevin OBrien gestures as he describes ISTC carbon capture projects for visitors from DOE and Doosan. Photo by Travis Tate, U of I Facilities & Services. 

Ste. Genevieve Cement Plant

Cement is a ubiquitous construction material, and its production produces tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. While scientists are working on alternative cements and lower-carbon production processes, it is likely that capturing and either using or storing emissions from cement production will be necessary to meet carbon reduction targets.

ISTC leads a front-end engineering and design (FEED) study for a commercial-scale carbon capture retrofit of Holcim’s Ste. Genevieve Cement Plant in Bloomsdale, Missouri. The project focuses on Air Liquide’s CrycocapTM FG system for carbon capture and is backed by $4 million from DOE-NETL. Read more about the Ste. Genevieve carbon capture project.

Carbon removal through direct air capture

Projects to remove carbon dioxide from ambient air, called direct air capture (DAC), were not included in the recent tour but are a growing part of ISTC’s carbon management portfolio. 

ISTC leads a project, backed by a grant of nearly $2.5 million from DOE-NETL, to develop preliminary designs and determine feasibility for the first commercial-scale direct air capture and storage system (DAC+S) for CO2 removal in the United States. This 18-month project will explore the possibility of pulling 100,000 tonnes of CO2 from the air annually, using technology from the Swiss company Climeworks, which has built and operated several DAC plants in various climates across Europe. The ISTC-led team will test the large-scale DAC systems at three sites across the U.S. in order to assess how different climate conditions impact the process. Read more about the DAC+S project

ISTC and Climeworks also are collaborating on a $2.5 million FEED study of a DAC system to capture CO2 for underground storage. The California host site, a geothermal plant, will provide thermal energy to drive the DAC process; the site also is close to a proposed geological storage facility in the Joaquin Basin.   

ISTC also leads a FEED study of direct air capture technology developed by CarbonCapture Inc. at U. S. Steel’s Gary Works Plant in Gary, Indiana. This project incorporates use of the captured carbon dioxide at a nearby Ozinga ready mix concrete plant. Injecting the CO2 into the concrete as it is being mixed causes the CO2 to mineralize, locking it in the concrete and preventing it from returning to the atmosphere. By using the U. S. Steel plant’s waste heat, energy needs can be reduced. Read more about the carbon capture and use FEED study at U. S. Steel’s Gary Works Plant.  

Finally, ISTC is a partner on a project that is exploring the benefits of constructing DAC technology at Constellation Energy’s Byron nuclear energy plant in Northern Illinois. Although nuclear plants do not produce carbon emissions, the plant can provide energy to power the DAC system, which could capture 250,000 tons of CO2 each year. 

Read more about sustainable energy research and development at the Prairie Research Institute.

Groundwater experts help industries and nature preserves thrive

By Tiffany Jolley, Prairie Research Institute

Across the Fox River Valley, the landscape has changed in almost unimaginable ways since the end of the most recent ice age over 12,000 years ago. Rapid expansion of agriculture, residential housing, and commercial development has replaced massive glaciers that left abundant resources of gravel, sand, and water in their wake.

Such large-scale transformations of the landscape are not isolated to the Fox River Valley, but in fact have occurred in every county in Illinois. Safe and sustainable water resources are necessary for all living things as well as for economic development within the state. In order for both to thrive, long-term groundwater sampling and monitoring by the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) and the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) are imperative. 

The ISGS and ISWS began monitoring the intersections between industry and the state-protected nature preserves in 1998, letting science and groundwater monitoring lead the way. Then-graduate student Randy Locke embarked on what was intended to be a two-year groundwater monitoring project; that project is now in its 24th year and has expanded to 414 dedicated nature preserves across 62,270 acres in Illinois.

Randy Locke working in 1999, headshot of Randy Locke currently
Then-graduate student Randy Locke (Left) working on what was intended to be a two-year groundwater monitoring project; Locke, now a principal research scientist at the ISGS. Photo credit: Randy Locke

Locke is now a principal research scientist at the ISGS and knows the storied and complex histories of Lake in the Hills Fen (LITH Fen), Volo Bog, and Bluff Spring Fen (BSF) nature preserves as well as almost anyone, and has seen changes that led to land acquisitions, legal battles, and Supreme Court rulings.

“What we’re doing is unique in scope and duration. There are long-term scientific studies happening at PRI that are akin, but it is not typical that we get the chance to systematically monitor natural areas for so long,” said Locke. “These sites are legally dedicated to a statewide system forever, and there is a persistent need by the natural resources agency responsible for the site to fully inform their site management and restoration efforts.”

The ISGS Nature Preserve Program has been a long-term collaborative effort with the INPC and between scientists of the ISGS and ISWS. It takes a dedicated and talented team to conduct extensive site monitoring, maintain equipment and installations, manage the collected data, make scientific assessments, and develop reports and petitions. Approximately 20 ISGS and ISWS staff members have worked on the program since its beginning. Since 2018, Eric Plankell, associate scientist and wetlands geologist has been the program’s Co-Principal Investigator. 

This model of long-term data collection has been helpful for the early detection of watershed issues, such as contamination, drought indicators, and climate change. It is also essential whenever restoration efforts are considered.

How it started

The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) was created by the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act in 1963 with the mission to “assist… landowners in protecting high-quality natural areas and habitats of endangered and threatened species in perpetuity, through the voluntary dedication of such lands into the Illinois Nature Preserves System.” Dedication as a nature preserve provides strong legal protection. For example, penalties for damaging a nature preserve range from a Class A misdemeanor to $10,000 per day in civil penalties.

John Nelson is a natural areas preservation specialist for the INPC’s Area 2 in Illinois, covering McHenry, Lake, Kane, DuPage, and Cook counties. LITH Fen, BSF, and Volo Bog nature preserves are all located in Area 2.

Leaves turn at Volo Bog Nature Preserve in the fall. Photo credit: Bill Batalden
Leaves turn at Volo Bog Nature Preserve in the fall. Photo credit: Bill Batalden

“These are extremely rare and delicate ecosystems,” said Nelson. “You can’t find a site like Volo Bog or the fens just anywhere in Illinois.”

During the end of the last Ice Age, a chunk of retreating glacial ice lodged itself deep in the ground at what is now Volo Bog Nature Preserve. Several thousand years later the remnant lake began to fill with peat and vegetation, creating the wetlands present today, exhibiting all stages of bog succession. The bog was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1973 as the only remaining open-water quaking bog in Illinois.

White Lady’s Slipper Orchid
Wild lady’s slipper orchids (Cydpripedium candidum) were once widespread, but are now classifed as imperiled after suffering a drastic decline in population numbers due to habitat loss, invasive species, woody encroachment, and outright poaching.
Photo credit: Chris Young / IDNR

In contrast to bogs, fens derive most of their water from mineral-rich groundwater rather than precipitation. Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve is a rare mix of prairie, woodlands, and wetlands, fed by mineral-rich springs that support an assortment of threatened and endangered plants and animals adapted to the consistent alkaline conditions of the groundwater. 

Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve is home to over 400 species of native plants and wildflowers – more than 40 of which are classified as uncommon, rare, or endangered. Additionally, one can find over 60 species of birds, rare insects, and geological features called “hanging fens” left from the Wisconsin Glacial Episode. Hanging fens are formed when groundwater emerges along a hillside, resulting in a wetland on a slope. There are only 26 acres of hanging fens in the nation, and the LITH Fen Nature Preserve has approximately four of them.

Sand and gravel mining occurs adjacent to all three nature preserves and started before Locke and others began monitoring groundwater and surface water in the area. Unfortunately, the lack of historical baseline data at most nature preserves prevents the evaluation of water quality degradation from off-site activities that occurred before monitoring began. In 1996, 207 nature preserves were screened by the ISWS, and nearly half of them were categorized as having high or very high sensitivity to ground­water contamination.

“With the mining, we needed and still need lots of monitoring,” said Nelson. “The protection plans developed with the assistance of ISGS and ISWS scientists help to balance two competing land uses – protecting the groundwater and the bog and recognizing property rights and mining activities.”

Therein lies the delicate balance which science-based decision-making must strive to achieve; providing protection for sensitive ecosystems on the one hand while allowing for economic development on the other.

How it’s going

As a result of petitions submitted by the INPC, and based on input from the ISGS and ISWS, Lake in the Hills Fen, Bluff Spring Fen, Volo Bog, and 27 other nature preserves have been given Class III Special Resource Water designations by the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB).

The IPCB defines a water source with a Class III designation as:
“Demonstrably unique (e.g., irreplaceable sources of groundwater) and suitable for application of a water quality standard more stringent than the otherwise applicable water quality standard and vital for a particularly sensitive ecological system.”

A Class III groundwater designation process can take years, and the ISGS and ISWS scientists work with the INPC to submit a petition to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) for approval. If approved, the petition heads to the IPCB and to public review for final approval.

PRI scientists working in the field at Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve. Photo credit: Randy Locke
PRI scientists working in the field at Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve. Photo credit: Randy Locke

“It, by law, identifies the area of land that has a direct connection to groundwater supporting the preserve,” said Locke. “The Class III designation also provides vital information to share with local municipalities, based on science, to help guide development or changes in land use that could impact a preserve. Class III groundwater standards are essentially Illinois Class I (drinking water) standards, but they can be adjusted to protect ecosystems that have different chemical sensitivities. All standards proposed are reviewed by the Illinois EPA and are communicated to the public in advance through the IPCB rulemaking process.” 

This designation has proven to be an effective tool to protect and guide development near nature preserves. The Class III Groundwater designation gives natural resource managers another tool to use in the review of proposed projects where negative impacts could occur on protected resources.

“We’ve been working to incorporate the Class III groundwater contribution areas into the review of proposed locations for new municipal wells, where the proposed wells will draw groundwater from an aquifer that supports a preserve,” said Valerie Njapa, the natural areas defense specialist at INPC. “Engaging with local officials has proven successful in highlighting the significance of dedicated nature preserves and endangered and threatened species, and ensuring their continued protection is part of the decision-making process.” 

But adjacent land use is still a significant threat to nature preserves. Nearly anything that is put into the air or onto the ground has the potential to have an adverse effect or cause contamination, including dumping within or near a preserve, residential septic systems, roads where deicers are used, agricultural fields or feedlots, leaking impoundments or storage tanks, and certain industrial and commercial activities. 

Road salt, water softeners, and fertilizers all make their way into groundwater, and once chloride dissolves into water, there’s really no economical way to remove it.

High salt concentrations in surface water and groundwater pose a significant threat to aquatic ecosystems and to infrastructure and industrial operations. Almost all of the rivers and streams monitored have had significant increases in chloride and sodium concentrations since the mid-1970s, with significantly higher concentrations found during the winter months as a result of runoff from salted roadways. Salt concentrations have increased most rapidly in the Fox River Basin west of the Chicago metropolitan area, where land use is rapidly changing from rural to urban. 

Native plants across the Midwest are not adapted to increased salt concentrations, so salt-tolerant invasive species, such as phragmites, may outcompete native species.

Pool at Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve Photo credit: Chris Young / IDNR
Pool at Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve. Photo credit: Chris Young/IDNR

Salt reduces oxygen levels in waterways, upsetting delicate foodwebs in wetlands by killing plants and zooplankton, while higher salt concentrations can even kill fish and wildlife directly. However, as surface water salt concentrations spike over the winter months, before rushing off into lakes, rivers, and streams into wetlands, chloride levels build over time in groundwater.

“The wetland ecosystems are some of the rarest and highest quality natural areas remaining in Illinois, and some are of global significance,” said Njapa. “The INPC has a high level of confidence in the technical expertise at the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) and can always rely on the assistance provided by the ISGS and ISWS, which is important to avert threats and prevent adverse impacts to sites in Illinois’ Nature Preserves System.” 

The ISWS examined chloride contamination in groundwater aquifers in Kane County from 1965 to 2015. Almost immediately after road salt was introduced in the 1960s, chloride contamination appeared in sand and gravel aquifers. By the 1970s, road salt had permeated shallow bedrock aquifers, and by 2015 chloride levels above secondary drinking water standards (of 250 milligrams per liter) were quite common in the area.  

While alternatives exist, salt is still the preferred choice for snow and ice management in Illinois. As more areas across Illinois and the country shift from rural to urban, chloride contamination will continue to be an environmental and public health issue. There are, however, “sensible salting” practices that can be more widely deployed to save communities money, while still effectively maintaining safe roadways. Those practices have the added benefit of reducing the amount of chloride that could enter groundwater and impact natural communities.

What’s ahead

One of the most pressing challenges Illinois faces in the coming decades is adapting to the effects of climate change, including impacts on agriculture and public health. Our fundamental understanding of climate change starts with accurate and cost-effective measurement and monitoring methods, which continue to advance our impact modeling and assessment capabilities. Air temperature and increased precipitation in the winter and spring followed by drought conditions over the summer have led to hydrologic extremes and impaired water conditions in the nature preserves and beyond. 

Sunset over the Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve
Sunset over the Lake in the Hills Fen Nature Preserve. Photo credit: Randy Locke

“The INPC relies on long-term monitoring and data analysis performed by the ISGS to evaluate hydrologic responses to mining and other development, transportation, and climatic conditions,” said Njapa. “PRI maintains the state’s repository of geological and hydrological data, and as such is in an ideal position to assess those conditions at sites throughout the state to allow informed natural resource management decisions.” 

Over time, the INPC has realized some success in minimizing impacts and improving restoration efforts at nature preserves it manages. The ISGS and ISWS have contributed to these successes by weighing in on management plans for each site, including stewardship activities and associated timelines for implementation.

“Without the ISGS and ISWS scientists, their expertise and data there’s no way we could have the good outcomes of protecting these sites,” said Nelson. 

Continued monitoring of these sites and elsewhere is vital in order to inform effective solutions and policymaking at the local and statewide levels. This critical data will identify, evaluate, and document groundwater impacts on ecological environments resulting from land-use changes such as additional mine reclamation, and residential or commercial development. 

For the foreseeable future, successful economies and healthy ecosystems will continue to rely heavily on data provided by ISGS and ISWS scientists.

This story first appeared on the Prairie Research Institute News Blog. Read the original story.

Data from the sky inform flood planning

by Tiffany Jolley, Prairie Research Institute

Hydrologic models based on lidar data can be created to see how water flows over a landscape, under bridges, and through culverts. Modeling can predict where bottlenecks might occur and where that potential overflow water would flood into. Modeling can also reveal the locations of flood plains, indicating what structures would be affected by a flood event and help to map out evacuation routes that would not likely be underwater.

The Illinois State Water Survey’s the Coordinated Hazard and Assessment Mapping Program (CHAMP) is at the helm of one of the largest 2D models in Illinois, spanning five southern Illinois counties – Johnson, Pope, Massac, Pulaski, and Alexander. The extremely flat topography of this region, known as the Cache River Valley, follows the Cache River system and the historic path of the Ohio River that’s been heavily manipulated by humans over time.

“Water moves in different directions during the course of a flood and that makes the hydraulic flow patterns really complicated to study flooding in this area,” said Chris Hanstad, a CHAMP project engineer. “The Water Survey works with regulatory groups in this region a lot because of this reason.”

Pictured in the model above are the complex hydraulics and hydrology of the Cache River. Flow paths and auxiliary channels adjacent to the Cache River can flow in the opposite direction of the Cache River. At other times, flow can all be moving in the same direction, sometimes even the main Cache River can backup and flow to the East.

The models rely on detailed light detection and ranging (lidar) data captured by the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS). Lidar data is acquired from a sensor that is attached to the belly of a plane that flies an average of 2,000 to 1,500 meters above the ground. The sensor emits pulses of light and measures the time it takes for each pulse to return to the sensor. That measurement is then used to compute distances to objects (latitude, longitude, and elevation) with accuracy within centimeters both vertically and horizontally. As the light returns to the sensors several times, it travels through soft targets such as trees, power lines, and bushes until it encounters the ground or a building.

In flood mitigation, lidar data allows the researchers to “see beneath the trees.” Scientists are able to look at only the bare earth returns and triangulate specific points to create a seamless mosaic representation of the ground.

“The Cache River valley has an interesting geologic and man-made history that has affected flooding,” said Hanstad.

At the turn of the 19th century, agriculture interests, and then later in the 1950s the Army Corps of Engineers built levees that forced the Upper Cache and Lower Cache River to become separated.

CHAMP and Hanstad are still waiting on input for the modeling of the Reevesville Levee in southern Illinois. As their analysis work winds down, FEMA will begin to produce new floodplain maps for the area.

FEMA requires floodplain maps to be based on current risks and current conditions, developed using data from recent climate assessments, which has been a challenge for communities in emphasizing today’s risk and future risk 25 to 50 years from now.

Flood model of a storm in March 2008 that produced between 7 and 12 inches of rainfall in about 40 hours over the region. This event was the flood of record for the Upper Cache River.

“A lot of floodplain maps were based on older rainfall data, but our new studies are using Bulletin 75 rainfall data which was published in 2020,” said Hanstad.

Models and simulations can also aid in post-disaster recovery. Ongoing work will help bolster mitigation efforts by looking at damages and prioritizing high-risk areas for mitigation against future disasters.

This story first appeared on the Prairie Research Institute News Blog. Read the original story.