12/19/14

Friday Foto: Millennium Park is fun all year round

Millennium Park in Chicago is the largest green roof in the world. So large it encompasses a skating rink in the winter time.

11 ways that IISG had a note-worthy year!

2014 has been an exciting year for IISG. New partnerships were forged, major projects were launched, and existing programs continued to grow. As we head towards another new year, let's take a look back at some of the highlights of the last 12 months. 

–More than $300,000 was awarded to three research projects that will improve understanding of the Lake Michigan nearshore food web, uncover connections between sediment removal projects and a community's ability to weather environmental hazards, and identify why people adopt stormwater management practices.

The Great Lakes Social Science Network gave researchers, natural resource managers, weather forecasters, and educators the information they need to ensure safety and planning messages meet the needs of local communities. 

A mobile app offering a self-guided walking tour of Chicago's historic and scenic downtown shoreline was released for Android and iOS. 

We said goodbye to several staff members and friends and welcomed 10 more to the team. 

The Illinois Clean Marina Program celebrated one year and six certifications. 

We got some help spreading the word about AIS prevention from celebrity newcomers Lady Quagga and Jumpin' Jack

The Michigan City buoy returned to the nearshore waters of Lake Michigan with a new sensor chain that measures temperatures at different depths. 

Our summer internship program wrapped up a successful third year. 

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced a $1.1 million investment in Blue Island to expand and improve stormwater management efforts that began in partnership with IISG.

Great Lakes Monitoring made it possible for researchers to analyze decades of high-quality monitoring data from across the region in minutes. 

Illinois EPA and the state Department of Agriculture released a plan to reduce the nutrient pollution behind the Gulf 'Dead Zone.'

A big thanks to all of the partners and collaborates that made these and other 2014 successes possible! 

12/18/14

Keeping drinking water safe still presents challenges

Earlier this week, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). This law allows us to feel safe taking a sip from water fountain or filling a glass from the tap virtually anywhere in the United States. It’s undeniably a feat worth celebrating, but it’s not to say that delivering safe drinking water to millions of Americans is still without its challenges—as this year’s events in Charleston, West Virginia and Toledo, Ohio prove.

One of the largest challenges lies in the system itself. Much of our drinking water infrastructure is more than a century old and in desperate need of repair. Leaky pipes and broken water mains cost the country around 6 billion gallons of water every day—roughly 16 percent of our daily use. In the Great Lakes region alone, the annual water loss is enough to supply 1.9 million Americans with safe drinking water for a year.

In northeastern Illinois, the cost of leaky pipes is heightened by overtaxed aquifers and legal limits on how much water can be pulled from Lake Michigan. And as the region’s population grows, there is increasing concern that demand for clean water will outpace supply if communities don’t take steps to encourage conservation, including adjusting water prices to reflect the real costs.  

Treating water to meet national standards poses its own problems. In fact, some of the chemicals used to treat contaminants regulated under SDWA have themselves proven toxic under the right conditions.

Water suppliers today also face the question of how to deal with emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals and chemicals found in personal care products. Our wastewater and drinking water systems weren’t designed with these in mind and often don’t eliminate them. These chemicals have been found across the country in the rivers and lakes we rely on for fresh water, including Lake Michigan. In fact, a 2008 Associated Press investigation found pharmaceuticals and their byproducts in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans. They’re present in very small concentrations—too small to be toxic to humans. But the long-term risk to humans is still largely unknown. What is clear is that at least some pose a significant threat to aquatic wildlife.  

One of the biggest culprits in lake and river pollution is stormwater runoff. When it flows into waterways, runoff brings everything with it—from gasoline and trash on city streets to fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and farms. These pollutants and the algae growth they spur on can make it more expensive to treat drinking water. In rare cases, water quality can drop so low that it doesn’t meet federal standards even with treatment. And concerns about pollutant-laden stormwater runoff continue to grow in the Midwest as storms get bigger.  

Fortunately, while public water systems and communities continue to grapple with these and other challenges at a larger scale, there is a lot individuals can do day-to-day. For example, properly disposing of unwanted medicine can help keep pharmaceutical chemicals out of waterways and drinking supplies. Homeowners and gardeners can also adopt natural lawn care practices that reduce water usage and prevent landscape chemicals from washing into nearby rivers and lakes. Even simple practices like washing your car with a bucket and sponge or waiting for a full load to start the washing machine can go a long way towards conserving water. 

Visit EPA's Conserving Water site for more information and tips. 

12/17/14

Website of the week: Plan for the future with Sustainable Communities

A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy. 

The Sustainable Communities program, a collaboration between IISG and Purdue University Extension, has been helping Indiana decision makers and residents improve the long-term health of their communities for years. And learning about available workshops and resources is now easier than ever with their new program website.    

Visitors will find information on key Purdue University Extension programs and resources to support community planning. Enhancing the Value of Public Spaces, for example, provides a framework for collecting data on community assets and using that data to preserve and improve parks, town centers, and other public spaces. The program will also help community leaders charged with managing public spaces and implementing new projects build communities that are more resilient to economic and environmental changes. The process starts with a one-day workshop that helps participants identify best practices for improving public spaces. Collaborative activities emphasize forming partnerships to achieve community sustainability goals, and follow-up working group meetings facilitated by Purdue Extension provide the resources and technical support needed to plan and implement projects tailored to individual communities. Workshops can be scheduled now. The complete curriculum will be available for download in early 2015.

For Master Gardeners, stormwater educators, and others involved in community education programs, a visit to the website is a quick way to learn about a train-the-trainer program designed to reduce stormwater runoff and the pollution it carries. Rainscaping Education is an advanced training opportunity that includes classroom instruction, online learning opportunities, and field trips to community examples of rainscaping projects. Participants also team up with community partners to design and create a demonstration rain garden. At the end of the four training modules, participants are prepared to support rainscaping projects and associated education programs in their communities. Workshops will begin this spring.  

The Sustainable Communities site also includes planning resources like the Guide to Green Events and the Planning with POWER series. 

For more information on Purdue’s Sustainable Communities Extension Program, contact Kara Salazar

12/16/14

This day in history: Drinking water standards go national

Grab a glass, turn on the faucet, and take a drink. It’s a simple thing we do every day without much thought. But it wasn’t that long ago that at least parts of the country had reason to pause before reaching for tap water. As recently as the 1970s in fact, concerns over drinking water quality were high and news was abuzz with reports of contaminants that posed risks to public health.

The tides began to turn on Dec. 16, 1974 when President Gerald Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) into law. One in a string of environmental legislation, the act set the stage for the first national health-based standards for drinking water. 
  
The standards—set by U.S. EPA and enforced primarily by the states—set maximum levels for roughly 90 contaminants ranging from pesticides to human waste to naturally-occurring chemicals that can endanger public health. The more than 150,000 public water systems regulated under SDWA are required to test for contaminants and make changes when standards aren’t met.

Over the years, Congress has expanded SDWA several times. The original act focused primarily on treatment processes and technologies. Today, states are also required to assess the quality of rivers, lakes, and groundwater used for drinking water and determine their vulnerability to contamination. Grant and loan programs were also established in 1996 to help providers, particularly small water systems, protect source water, improve treatment processes, and train system operators and managers.   

The 1996 amendments also make it easier for you to learn where your water comes from, how it is treated, and what you can do to protect drinking water supplies. Community water systems are required to provide this information in annual consumer confidence reports. You can also get answers to specific questions by calling the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline.

Despite these improvements, ensuring Americans have access to safe drinking water is not without its challenges. Check back here later this week for more information on some of the major obstacles faced by water providers and communities.  

12/15/14

U of I students get hands-on with pharmaceutical disposal

University of Illinois students and faculty took a break from the end-of-semester chaos earlier this month to take advantage of a single-day medicine take-back. The student-led event was part of the Learning in Community (LINC) service course facilitated by IISG.  
  
“We spoke to so many different people to put on this event, from police officers to student organization leaders on campus to Jimmy John’s representatives,” said Reema Abi-Akar, a senior in urban planning. “We looked into case studies of past medicine take-back events, learned the ropes, and slowly absorbed all of the components we needed to replicate to put on a successful event.”

“Preparations for the event were challenging,” added Rosalee Celis, project manager and senior in biomedical engineering. “There were various marketing aspects that still had to be completed and communication between a 10-member team over Thanksgiving break was difficult. However, the efforts exerted during this crunch time made the results more satisfying.”

The event was a success, collecting 15 pounds of unused medicine for incineration in just six hours. 

This was just one of the outreach projects led by the LINC students this year. The class, which includes eight students and two undergraduate project managers, also gave an interactive presentation to an ESL class at Urbana High School to raise awareness of the risks of pharmaceutical pollution and the importance of proper disposal.

“Our group truly feels like we made a difference in the community and spread the word about proper medicine disposal,” Reema said.

And the course has been an eye-opening experience for the students as well. 

To be honest, I started this experience with little to no knowledge about proper medicine disposal,” Reema continued. “All the old medications in my parents’ medicine cabinet were simply collecting dust for years because we never knew how to get rid of them. Once I came into this LINC class and my group began researching the subject further, I became more and more interested in it—and I believe I’m speaking for my entire group as well.

“I can now enter the professional workforce in the pharmaceutical industry with the awareness of potential environmental damage due to pharmaceutical waste,” said Rosalee. 

12/12/14

Placement week a success for new Knauss Fellow Rachel Gentile

The two IISG-sponsored Knauss Fellows selected for 2015 recently returned from D.C., where they met with other fellows, interviewed with government agencies and offices, and learned where they spend the next year working on water resource and environmental issues. Rachel Gentile, who is completing a PhD in Biological Sciences at Notre Dame, shares her experiences.

My placement is in the office of Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA-47). I will be assisting with his marine policy portfolio and will also be directing the House Safe Climate Caucus. This means I will be managing the activities of the caucus and assisting with floor speeches, op-eds, and short videos to promote climate change awareness in the House of Representatives. I applied to the Knauss Sea Grant Fellowship because I wanted to assist with discussions concerning marine and climate issues on Capitol Hill, so this placement in Rep. Lowenthal’s office is a dream come true!

Placement week was a whirlwind of excitement for me. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the other finalists, Knauss alumni, and the legislative hosts. I also learned a lot about the legislative process and my future role as a Knauss Fellow.

At the beginning of the week, we attended a series of lectures facilitated by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the Library of Congress. We learned how politics, policy, and procedure come together inside the walls of congress to pass—and fail—bills. We were introduced to CRS subject librarians and research specialists in marine, climate, and energy policy who will be incredibly helpful to us as we research these issues and write memos, talking points, floor speeches, and legislation.

Most of the week was spent in interviews with the host offices. I interviewed in 17 different offices over three days. I loved hearing about the work each office was doing. Many hosts talked about fisheries, marine national monuments, climate change adaptation, water and drought issues, and ocean acidification. There are many marine policy issues currently being addressed in congress, and as a Knauss Fellow, I will assist my host office with them.

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