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 a 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 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 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.

12/11/14

Knauss Fellow Alyssa Hausman goes to Washington

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 will spend the next year working on water resource and environmental issues. Alyssa Hausman, a Master's student at Indiana University, shares her experiences. 

Placement week was one of the most unique and exciting experiences that I have gone through, but I am so glad that I will never have to do it again. My week consisted of 15 interviews for 16 positions and concluded with my placement for the next year. In the process, I managed to meet 51 fantastic and brilliant people that I will get to share this next year and fellowship experience with. I also learned more about the various executive offices involved in marine policy than I thought possible in such a short time.

I was placed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Congressional and Legislative Affairs. This coming year, I will serve as a liaison with the offices of congressional members and committees. Though the portfolio of issues I will be working on will not be determined until I start this position, the current fellow is assigned to issues regarding endangered species, coastal and marine resources, and fisheries. This position will expand my knowledge of natural resource management and the legislative process.

I have had the opportunity to work with Knauss fellows in the past and admired their commitment to the stewardship of marine environments and the opportunities that the fellowship provided them. This past summer, for example, I interned with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, where I realized just how extensive and strong the Knauss network is. The office has two current fellows and a handful of alumni, all of whom welcomed me into the “mafia” when I received my acceptance in June. Seeing how connected these alumni remain to the program and how supportive they are of incoming fellows makes me excited and proud to be a part of this network. These experiences collaborating with past fellows are what drove me to the Knauss fellowship, and I am honored that I will be joining their ranks in February.

In two short weeks, I will be graduating from Indiana University’s School of Public of Environmental Affairs with dual Master’s degrees in environmental science and public affairs. I am very much looking forward to beginning my fellowship and my post-graduate career—after a much needed month off, of course.

12/10/14

Website of the week: Tour Chicago's lakefront from the comfort of home

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

It's getting a little chilly for a stroll in the Windy City, but don't let that stop you from enjoying it's beautiful downtown lakefront. With Chicago Water Walk, you can explore some of the city's most celebrated sites—Navy Pier, the Chicago River, downtown marinas, Buckingham Fountain, and Museum Campus—from anywhere. 

The mobile-friendly website takes viewers on a journey through time to discover how Lake Michigan and the Chicago River transformed a small trading post into one of the economic and cultural hubs of the world—and the vital role these natural resources play in the city’s present and future.

Each stop in the virtual tour combines history, current events, and water sciences with fun facts to show the importance of aquatic ecosystems in the city’s past, present, and future. Stunning photos, historical images, and links to videos and other resources bring these issues to life and reveal a lakefront that will surprise even lifelong Chicagoans. 

Visit the website and you'll learn why the decision to reverse the Chicago River is still making waves more than a century later, how a city that sits along Lake Michigan can be concerned about having enough water in the future, and how native trees and plants are helping the city prepare for changing weather patterns. You'll also hear about efforts to restore much-needed habitats for millions of birds, fish, and other wildlife.

And for those willing to brave the cold, a mobile tour app is available for free on both Android and Apple devices. You can follow the suggested routes or visit the sites that most appeal to you using the app's interactive map. 

The Chicago Water Walk website and app were developed by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant with funding from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program and technical support from the University of Illinois Administrative Information Technology Services

12/9/14

In the news: Less lake effect snow expected as climate changes

Scenes of massive snowfall in Great Lakes communities like Kalamazoo and Buffalo may become a thing of the past. A new study out of the University of Wisconsin suggests the region could see less lake effect snow as soon as the mid-21st century due to climate change. The total amount of precipitation will likely go up, but warmer temperatures and less lake ice means the air blowing east across the lakes will bring rain instead. 

From the Post-Standard: 
The biggest change from snow to rain would be in November, the study shows, making the massive lake effect storm near Buffalo last month less likely by 2100. That storm dumped 90 inches of snow in some areas in five days. Thirteen people died and more than 100 miles of the New York State Thruway was shut down for days.  
[Michael] Notaro's article was published in the Journal of Climate just days before the Buffalo-area storm. He is a senior scientist at the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research in Madison, Wisc. 
The paradox of lake effect snow, however, is that before it begins to drop off after 2050 it might actually increase for a few decades, according to research by Notaro and Colgate University professorAdam Burnett. 
"My original idea was that in the short run, as the lakes become warmer and and lake ice disappears, we would still have enough cold air around to produce lake effect snow," said Burnett, whose 2003 study showed a rise in lake effect snow from Lake Ontario. "You could end up with some pretty serious snows like we saw in Buffalo." Read more
***Photo A: Lake effect snow near Buffalo, NY in November. Photo by Michael Garrood. 
***Photo B: From WGGB in western Massachusetts. 

12/8/14

Funding available for projects addressing key Great Lakes issues

We are pleased to announce two new funding opportunities for original research projects addressing critical issues in the Great Lakes region and in other coastal areas affected by management activities in the Midwest.

The first request for proposals seeks research related to IISG core topic areas. Particular attention will be giving to projects within the following themes:
  • Reducing nutrient and chemical contamination of aquatic systems
  • Forecasting and decision tools for effective environmental management
  • Barriers to implementing practices that lessen anthropogenic impacts
PIs from both Illinois and Indiana are eligible for this call.

IISG has also partnered with Wisconsin Sea Grant to fund projects that will help improve coastal community resiliency to severe weather events. Proposals for this special joint call should:
  • Increase resilience of Lake Michigan coastal communities to severe weather events
  • Advance risk-based weather forecasts and communication for the Great Lakes region
Eligible projects will include at least one researcher from Illinois or Indiana and one from Wisconsin.

For both calls, researchers can request as much as $100,000 per year for up to two years. Research should take place during the 2016-2017 biennium. For full consideration, all PIs must submit a pre-proposal by 5:00 pm CST (6:00 pm EST) on January 20, 2015.

Read the full RFPs at the links above for more information on project and application requirements. Additional questions can be sent to Carolyn Foley or Tomas Hook

12/5/14

Symposium showcases new watershed education ideas and tools

Educators and outreach specialists from across the Mississippi River Watershed gathered at Lewis and Clark Community College last month to discuss ideas for enhancing programs and improving partnerships. Our own Michael Brennan, Kirsten Hope Walker, and Allison Neubauer were among those in the crowd. 

"One of the most unusual and interesting presentations was from an artist named Libby Reuter, who, along with her friend and photographer, Josh Rowan, place glass cairns in different watershed areas to bring attention to the beauty of the area as well as the problems," said Kirsten. "The cairns are made of broken, found, and garage sale glass pieces and are stacked—with the help of some industrial glue—on each other. They are only placed in the watershed location long enough to take the photographs, which are then exhibited in museums as well as on her website. I thought it was a really interesting way to bring attention to watersheds in the art world.

For Michael, the most memorable moment was the unveiling of Field Scope, a new webtool that helps citizen scientists investigate questions like "Are frog populations declining?" "What is the water quality in my favorite fishing spot?" and "Is climate change affecting the timing of leafs in spring?" 

"Field Scope provides a medium for citizen scientists to visually explore environmental observations using an interactive map," he said. "Users have the ability to focus on a specific topic—like frogs—or compare the impact of water temperature on oxygen levels. It also encourages visitors to share their own environmental measurements and observations with a broad community. Users can contribute data to existing projects, like Great Lakes Field Scope, or create your own unique project.  

Field Scope is free, designed for grades k-12, and geared to help students meet school standards related to STEM learning fields," Michael added. 

But it wasn't all conference rooms and presentations.

"Allison and I also had an opportunity to attend the last river clean-up of the year with Chad Pergracke and the Living Lands and Waters crew," Kirsten said. "They were very personable and fun, and they kept people motivated while picking up trash along the river. I was a bucket list item for me, and I would definitely go again. Who knew cleaning trash from the river could be so much fun?"

12/4/14

Winter's coming: What Midwesterners can expect this season

With that nip in the air and the occasional snow flurries, it's hard to deny that winter is almost here. Will this year be as cold as last? Molly Woloszyn tackles this complicated question.  

After a mild start to fall, November abruptly turned cold in the Midwest, giving us an early dose of winter. One of the coldest days was November 17th, when maximum daily temperatures of less than 30°F were widespread across the region—parts of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa only reached the single digits. With a preliminary average temperature of 31.4°F, November 2014 is now the Midwest’s sixth coldest November since records began in 1895.

But things are shaping up to be a little different for December. In fact, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) is now predicting a pattern change for at least the next two weeks. This means there’s a good chance that a majority of the United States will experience much milder conditions, with above-normal temperatures expected through the middle of the month. This isn’t necessarily surprising. We have a couple of examples in the past where record cold Novembers gave way to normal or warmer winters.


So, the question on all of our minds is “What does the rest of the 2014-2015 winter have in store for us Midwesterners?”

I wish I had a formula to tell you exactly what to expect. Accurate seasonal outlooks are always difficult to provide. But predictions are especially difficult this year because there is no strong signal or driver in the atmosphere.

What do I mean by “signal” or “driver”? I am talking about phenomenon like El Niño, which is the existence of unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.  Believe it or not, this can have major implications across the country. In the Midwest, winters tend to be warmer than normal—and drier in some places—when there is a strong El Niño. There is a 65 percent chance El Niño could develop this winter. However, if it emerges, it is likely to be weak, making it an undependable driver when it comes to this winter’s outlook. 

A few seasonal outlook approaches are pointing to the possibility for a colder-than-normal winter in the Midwest. For instance, some research suggests that there is a strong correlation between rapid snow advancement and its overall extent across Siberia and Eurasia during October and colder-than-normal winter temperatures and more snowfall in the eastern United States. In October 2014, snow cover advance and extent across Eurasia was the 2nd highest in the satellite era, suggesting it could be a cold and snowy winter here in the Midwest.

This prediction is supported by another phenomenon we are seeing in the central and northern Pacific Ocean. A positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which represents a warmer-than-normal pattern of sea surface temperatures, tends to encourage colder conditions in the eastern US. The PDO has been predominantly negative since the late 1990s, but it shifted to positive in 2014.

Even if a colder winter is in our future, it may not necessarily be a white one. NOAA’s CPC is predicting greater chances of below-normal precipitation in portions of the eastern Midwest, which is also related to the possibility for weak El Niño development. There is no clear signal for the rest of the region. 

Of course, we will have more information on winter weather predictions as they come in. In the meantime, enjoy the more mild temperatures most likely in store for the next few weeks.

***Special thanks to the Chicago National Weather Service for providing some of this information, which came from their winter 2014-15 outlook.

Photo A: 24-hour maximum temperatures ending the morning of Nov. 18. 2014. 
Photo B: The outlook for Dec. 10-16 from the Climate Prediction Center. Red shading represents areas with greater chances for above-normal temperatures. 
Photo C: Winter temperature outlook for Dec. 2014 – Feb. 2015. Map by NOAAclimate.gov based on data from the Climate Prediction Center. 
Photo D: Winter precipitation outlook for Dec. 2014 – Feb. 2015. Map by NOAAclimate.gov based on data from the Climate Prediction Center. 

12/3/14

Website of the week: Great Lakes Monitoring is rich in data


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

Monitoring data that used to take months to find and retrieve now takes just minutes with Great Lakes Monitoring. The new web application makes it easy to view and analyze decades of high-quality nutrient, contaminant, and water characteristic data collected by universities and government agencies across the region, including the U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office. 

Interactive maps and menus provide an overview of monitoring locations and allow users to drill down to detailed data profiles for each site and compare specific parameters across multiple sites. From the Explore Trends view, users can see basin-wide patterns for environmental characteristics like phosphorus, chlorophyll a, nitrogen, and mercury. 

The cutting-edge tool also allows researchers to create and download their own data sets for the locations, sources, environmental characteristics, and dates that most interest them. And a variety of available file types make offline use easy.

In addition to improving data access, Great Lakes Monitoring makes it easier for researchers, universities, and agencies to share data with the public.

Great Lakes Monitoring was created by IISG and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in collaboration with Barbara Minsker and her lab at the University of Illinois Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Funding for the project comes from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.  

12/2/14

Nearshore buoy coming to Illinois summer 2015

A new environmental sensing buoy will be placed north of Chicago this summer, making it easier than ever for Illinois boaters and beach-goers to spend a fun, safe day on the water. 

Like its counterpart in Michigan City, IN, the nearshore buoy will relay information on wave height and direction, wind speed, and air and surface water temperatures in near real time. A webcam will also make it possible to watch changing lake conditions first-hand.

This is the newest in a string of nearshore buoys along the Lake Michigan shoreline. In addition to allowing people track waves and temperatures, the data they collect will help officials warn beachgoers when contamination levels may make swimming unsafe. Researchers also rely on the real-time information to manage fisheries, monitor lake currents, and improve hazardous weather predictions.

The Illinois buoy, jointly operated by IISG and LimnoTech, is expected to go online in May. The project is funded by the Great Lakes Observing System through a grant from NOAA Coastal Storms. For more questions, contact Carolyn Foley

12/1/14

Stormwater management gets a major boost in Blue Island

October brought good news for the residents of Blue Island, IL when the state announced a $1.1 million investment to expand and improve the city's stormwater management efforts. The bulk of the grant money will go to green infrastructure projects along one of the city's major roadways, which will reduce flooding, improve local water quality, and beautify the community. Remaining dollars will be used to restore an 11-acre wetland in a northeast detention pond. 

The new projects are the latest in a series of local, state, and non-profit programs tackling stormwater runoff in this suburban community. In 2012, IISG teamed up with the Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Illinois EPA, and many others to  combat local flooding with native plants, rain gardens, and rain barrels. That year, the Blue Island, Blue Water initiative helped distribute 125 rain barrels to residents and institutions in one of the city's flood-prone neighborhoods. And roughly 1,000 native plants and trees were planted over the course of the project. 

Sea Grant educators and specialists also conducted numerous teacher and homeowner workshops to strengthen community awareness of green infrastructure practices and other strategies for managing and reducing stormwater runoff. 

It's early success led the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to name Blue Island, Blue Water a Millennium Reserve model project in 2012. Lessons learned during the project have also helped inform the new Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, charged with coordinating the region's stormwater and green infrastructure efforts to maximize the impact of individual city and agency projects. 

The collaborative is led by the Metropolitan Agency for Planning and brings together numerous groups interested in stormwater issues, including the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, and IISG. 

11/25/14

Breaking news: Illinois releases plan to reduce nutrient pollution

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (Illinois EPA) and the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) are inviting residents to weigh-in on a new statewide effort designed to improve water quality in Illinois and the Gulf of Mexico. Public comments on the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy will be accepted until January 24, 2015

The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy relies on the latest science and best-available technologies to guide statewide efforts to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen losses delivered to Illinois waterways and the Gulf of Mexico. These nutrients spur on algae blooms that deplete oxygen levels, hinder recreation, and threaten public health. Nutrient pollution can also degrade drinking water quality and require cities to install costly treatment equipment.

The strategy outlines a comprehensive suite of best management practices to reduce nutrient losses from both point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities, and non-point sources, including runoff from farm fields and city streets. Identified practices target the most critical watersheds and build upon existing state and industry programs to achieve the ultimate goal of reducing the amount of total phosphorus and nitrate-nitrogen reaching Illinois waters by 45 percent.

At the heart of the plan is a scientific assessment of statewide nutrient loading from point and non-point sources and an evaluation of practices proven to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses from agricultural landscapes. Key components also include establishing committees to coordinate water quality monitoring, develop numeric nutrient criteria, and improve urban stormwater programs and education, creating a forum for improved agriculture stakeholder and agency collaboration, and defining a process for regular review and revision. 

Illinois EPA and IDOA developed the strategy with representatives from state and federal agencies, agriculture, and non-profit organizations as well as scientists and wastewater treatment processionals. The one-year effort was facilitated by the Illinois Water Resources Center at the University of Illinois and marks the most comprehensive and integrated approach to date for addressing both point and non-point sources of nutrients in Illinois.

The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy was developed in response to the federal 2008 Gulf of Mexico Action Plan, which calls for 12 states in the Mississippi River Basin to develop strategies to reduce loading to the Gulf of Mexico, where excess nutrients have led to an aquatic life ‘dead zone’ that stretches for thousands of square miles. 

Public comments can be emailed to simon.daniels@illinois.gov or mailed to NLRS Comments, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Water, 1021 North Grand Ave. East, P.O. Box 19276, Springfield, IL 62794. 

***Photo B courtesy of David Riecks. 

11/24/14

Place-based education inspires more than just students

Several IISG staff members were in Grand Rapids, MI earlier this month to share some of our education resources and curricula during the Great Lakes Place-based Education Conference. For Allison Neubauer, the experience had an unexpected twist. 

Stewardship and place-based education are nothing new to us educators at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. In fact, the IISG education team has been leading efforts in these initiatives throughout southern Lake Michigan communities for years. For this reason, going into the conference, I thought it was a great opportunity for us to share our models of stewardship and place-based education. I didn’t plan on gaining much insight into how and why these objectives were critical. Boy, was I wrong.

IISG undoubtedly has an arsenal of exemplary stewardship models, and a jam-packed room of eager educators at our Friday afternoon session was an indication of their desire to hear how we’ve extended learning beyond classrooms and into communities.

But as much as I enjoyed sharing our examples of student stewardship as a means of combatting invasive species, promoting proper disposal of unwanted medication, and teaching about benefits and risks of fish consumption, the best part of the conference was actually hearing others share their stories.

The opening keynote address by Kim Rowland, a middle school science teacher, detailed how her students have been able to use their surrounding environment in Grand Rapids as a resource for exploration and learning. What was most captivating and exciting to hear was how this time spent investigating the outdoors was a way to reach students that are not typically high academic achievers. Kim told us about a particular student who was always getting in trouble—not wanting to come to school, and certainly not excited about learning. Though she had not anticipated this, venturing out to the stream on school property transformed him into the most enthusiastic student of the group. In fact, this student was now so interested in collecting samples that he waded even further into the stream, thus giving Kim a very fitting title for her presentation: “Getting Your Feet Wet and Allowing Water to Flood Your Boots.”

This was a great way to kick-off the conference. It really impressed upon me that place-based education should not be considered a luxury, or something that only all-star teachers are doing. Every student—from urban to rural, high achieving to special needs—must be exposed to learning outside the classroom. School should not take place in isolation, between the same four walls everyday. There is immense value in connecting students with their communities and surrounding environments as a means to enhance learning and civic understanding.

11/20/14

U of I students get creative with green infrastructure

Eliana Brown recently joined the Illinois Water Resources Center as an outreach specialist. Prior to starting at IWRC, she worked at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Facilities & Services as the MS4 coordinator and at Illinois EPA as a field engineer. Eliana has a M.S. in environmental engineering and a B.S. in general engineering and marketing from the University of Illinois.

The following is a contributing post from Eliana, who has a passion for rain gardens and green infrastructure:

When you were a university student, did you ever reimagine your campus landscape? Students at the University of Illinois did exactly that as an assignment for Landscape Architecture (LA) 452, Native Plants and Design.

The U of I campus has 84 miles of storm sewer, most of which drain rainwater directly to Boneyard Creek. The LA 452 students designed landscapes with elements that capture water and allow it to soak in on-site to reduce loads to the existing storm sewer and creek. These elements (called green infrastructure) include rain gardens, swales, and green roofs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sees green infrastructure as a way to create sustainable, resilient communities that improve water quality.

EPA has a competition called the Campus RainWorks Challenge that invites “student teams to design an innovative green infrastructure project for their campus showing how managing stormwater at its source can benefit the campus community and the environment.”

According to Jason Berner, EPA environmental protection specialist, who has been involved with administering the competition, it is a great way for students to see how green infrastructure is related to the larger campus master plan. “It moves us beyond single pilot projects, but at the same time, blends both small and large scale thinking,” he explained.

LA 452 instructor Tawab Hlimi is leading the U of I Campus RainWorks entry. Students in his class helped brainstorm ideas for the entry. One of those ideas is pictured. Student Jiwon
Kim reimagined the grounds at the National Soybean Research Building (which happens to house Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the Illinois Water Resources Center). Native plant rain gardens intercept stormwater from the building roof and parking lot. During large storms, the design takes advantage of existing storm sewers by overflowing excess water to them.

Like many cities and universities, the U of I began installing storm sewers more than 100 years ago. Storm sewers benefit cities by draining flooded areas. However, they can overload receiving streams and cause unintended damage. Adding green infrastructure elements to the existing infrastructure helps ensure a healthier ecosystem on-site and downstream.

Per Hlimi, “Through a campus wide application of rain gardens, students hybridized native plantings with a superficial stormwater management strategy to meet multiple objectives: accommodating the ‘first flush’ of frequent storm events through detention, infiltration, and biofiltration, reducing the load on existing subsurface infrastructure, improving the water quality entering into the Boneyard Creek, creating habitat for pollinators, and rendering the campus landscape as living laboratory.”

Perhaps one day in the not too distant future, students won’t have to imagine green infrastructure on campus. They’ll see it.

Learn how you can put in a rain garden on your property by checking out the Southern Lake Michigan Rain Garden Manual.

11/19/14

Join us in congratulating Jacob Wood

Former intern Jacob Wood received an award earlier this month for a poster he presented during Purdue University's GIS Day, an annual event dedicated to geospatial research and geographic information systems (GIS). 


"The poster detailed my work over the summer with IISG on mapping Lake Michigan catch data. Jarrod Doucette and myself have been working creating a web app for the IISG website to visualize two decades of recorded fish catch data from the Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources. I thought presenting the poster at Purdue's GIS Day would be a great way to show the work that I accomplished for IISG over the summer."

Read more about our summer internship program and hear from past interns about what they are up to now. 

11/18/14

Do you ThinkWater?

Kirsten Hope Walker, our environmental educator, is thinking about water education in a new way after attending a conference earlier this month. And today she shares those thoughts with us. 

Sometimes when you attend one conference, you hear about another one that sparks your interest. That's how I heard about the WE Thinks Water Education Summit. What first caught my interest was the promotional video. It wasn’t about water at all—it was about the way it’s taught. 



Information doesn't guarantee knowledge. I knew that, but the video really brought to light that the key to improving knowledge lies in the thought process of the person hearing the information. I thought, “This is my way of thinking and teaching.” I wanted to know more.

While at the summit, I met many interesting people who provide excellent water education opportunities all over the country. The presenters, Drs. Derek and Laura Cabrera, talked about meta-cognition and how it can be applied to already established curriculum and human interactions. They talked about what they called a meta-map—like a concept map, but more complex. They're built around four simple principles. 
  • Distinctions establish what a topic is as well as what it isn’t 
  • Systems are parts of a whole  
  • Relationships appear between parts and the whole, as well as other topics 
  • Every topic has different perspectives that have to be considered 
A perfect example is politics. There are a lot of parts to the whole, many are related to each other, and many people have very different perspectives of the same words. Designing curriculum around these meta-cognition principles will help learners turn information into knowledge. It’s the “Oh Captain, My Captain” style of learning.

This conference has impacted me greatly. I think differently about how I look at and construct new curriculum, as well as how I would  adapt curriculum that is already out there. It also confirmed that I was on the right track when I taught high school and challenged my students to question everything and look at different perspectives on the same topic. I would recommend this conference to anyone who wants to think beyond information regurgitation. 

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