In the news: Federal judge’s ruling moves Chicago closer to clean water compliance

The Municipal Water Reclamation District of Chicago is able (and required) to move towards full compliance with the Clean Water Act and other related guidelines as a result of a federal judge approving the consent decree. 

More info on what that means from MetroPlanning.org
"Some good and long-awaited stormwater news quietly dropped the other day—a federal judge approved the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago's (MWRD) Consent Decree, which is a binding agreement detailing very specific steps MWRD will take to move toward full compliance with the Clean Water Act and other federal guidelines on an equally specific timeline. There has been and will continue to be debate about whether the Consent Decree is strong enough, fast enough or green enough. But the reality is that it is now in place, and I'm excited that we can finally get to work on something, rather than sitting around waiting. I don't read too many court rulings, but I found this one quite scannable.  

MWRD, of course, is responsible for wastewater and stormwater management throughout Cook County; on a daily basis it discharges treated effluent to area waterways, and that water must meet Clean Water Act standards. The same requirements hold true in storms, and that's where most of the impetus for the Consent Decree lies: If there is more rain more quickly than MWRD's infrastructure system can handle, the result is overflows of untreated wastewater and stormwater into those same waterways...resulting it MWRD being out of compliance with aspects of its Clean Water Act (and associated regulation) requirements. To be fair, many other metropolitan areas have the same problems, and as a result have their own Consent Decree in place. Several years ago MWRD, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Ill. Environmental Protection Agency began working out the requirements—finish the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) by X, improve collection of 'floatables' in our waterways by Y, etc. When the draft Consent Decree was released for public comment, two separate coalitions of environmental organizations opined that the whole thing should be faster and greener. A federal judge was asked to determine if the requirements were reasonable, that went on for a bit, he decided they were, and now it's what we have to work with, so let's get to work."
Read the complete post at the link above, which contains information on specific targets and goals related to moving toward Clean Water Act compliance.


In the news: Latest Farm Bill provides protection for soil and wetlands

The House and Senate are expected to pass the latest version of the Farm Bill in the coming days, following several rounds of drafts and revisions. Among the many provisions in the bill are improved protections against soil runoff and the draining of wetlands. 

"'It was the worth the wait to get a Farm Bill that will help protect our nation’s land, water and wildlife,' said Julie Sibbing, Senior Director of Agriculture and Forestry Programs for National Wildlife Federation. 'We are particularly pleased that the final bill includes a critical provision to prevent soil erosion and conserve our nation’s priceless wetlands, both of which will protect water quality for people and wildlife.'

By re-linking conservation compliance to federal crop insurance, farmers will have to implement basic soil and wetland protections on their land in exchange for federal assistance. Doing so will prevent countless acres of wetlands from being drained, keep millions of tons of soil from eroding and washing into waterways..."
Read more about the bill at the link above.


New water quality outreach position now accepting applications

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center are now accepting applications for a newly developed Water Quality Outreach Specialist position. 

The water quality outreach specialist will be tasked with developing a program on nutrient transfer and water quality issues, working directly with scientists, planners, community members, and resource managers in the Mississippi river basin and Gulf of Mexico. The selected applicant will also work closely with scientists and agency officials to understand and disseminate information about water quality and nutrient transport research. 

Applications should be submitted by March 16. The complete job listing, including more detail and minimum requirements, can be viewed online here.


In the news: Researchers begin studying toxic algae in depth

The Great Lakes, and Lake Erie in particular, have seen increasing amounts of algal blooms in recent years. Those algal blooms can (and do) produce toxins that are dangerous both to beachgoers and the environment at large. Now the algae, its causes, and its dangers are getting a closer look from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. 

"Exposure to the algae-borne toxins found in some Ohio lakes can quickly lead to unpleasant symptoms, and it appears children might be at greatest risk, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that relies heavily on Ohio-based incidents.

Algal blooms are excessive accumulations of microscopic algae that sometimes produce bacteria that, according to the report, can lead to vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, rashes, headaches, fevers and respiratory problems, depending on the nature of the exposure. Most algal blooms are not dangerous, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency says.

The CDC looked at 11 outbreaks — all of which sprung from recreational activities during the summer months — in 2009 and 2010. Six of the 11 outbreaks examined by the CDC — and 48 of 61 resulting cases of illness — occurred in Ohio.

Two out of three every individuals afflicted by the dirty water were younger than 20, according to the report. Of the 61 individuals who sought some kind of medical attention, no one died and only two were hospitalized. Health effects sometimes manifested as soon as 12 hours after contact with the toxins produced by the cyanobacteria, often called blue-green algae."
Read the complete article at the link above.


Great Lakes hold great potential for curing diseases

The cure for some of the world’s deadliest diseases may be living at the bottom of the Great Lakes. This is the theory Brian Murphy, a medicinal chemist at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), set out to test in 2012 when he scoured Lake Huron in search of a largely unexplored type of bacteria that may hold the key to new treatments. 

The IISG-funded study unearthed more than 600 strains of freshwater actinomycete bacteria, making it one of the largest "libraries" of its kind in the world. Murphy—with help from UIC researchers Scott Franzblau, Joanna Burdette, and Lijun Rong—is still testing whether these strains can be used to create new treatments for tuberculosis and other life-threatening diseases. But their initial results suggest that at least a handful of freshwater bacteria could lead to new cures. 

A microbe’s medicinal power lies in the small compounds they make to defend themselves, which can destroy cell walls, prevent DNA from replicating like it should, and more. Current treatments for many diseases are built around the chemical defenses used by land-based cousins of the bacteria Murphy has collected. But some treatments, like the ones for tuberculosis, require patients to be on a complex cocktail of antibiotics for months at a time. Worse still, a growing number of diseases are now resistant to standard drugs. The hope is that some of the freshwater bacteria in Murphy's library might create molecules that dangerous pathogens have yet to evolve defenses against.  

"Researchers have been operating on the assumption that bacteria in the lake are nearly identical to what are found on the land," said Murphy. "But we think these freshwater strains are likely to produce new molecules that target diseases in different ways."

Murphy and his team will spend the next few months scrutinizing chemical compounds from 10 actinomycete strains already showing disease-fighting potential and comparing them against known antibiotics, anti-virals, and anti-cancer agents. At the same time, they will keep working through their bacterial library hoping to find even more molecules with drug-like potency. 

Just as important as finding new molecules is learning more about the relationship between a microbe’s chemical properties and where it lives. This is where Murphy’s library of strains really comes in. Its size and diversity will help reveal both whether aquatic actinomycete bacteria are significantly different than their land-based counterparts and if strains found in different lakes use unique chemical defenses.

"One of the biggest barriers in the discovery of new drugs is knowing where to look," said Murphy. "Knowing where bacteria populations are similar and where they are different helps us figure out exactly where to sample when looking for new drugs."

Because of his collection, Murphy has already discovered that the makeup of actinomycete communities in Lake Huron varies both by location and depth, a diversity that makes the lake a potentially important site in the hunt for new cures.


In the news: Documentary takes a closer look at Great Lakes and climate change

A recent documentary, Project: Ice, started out as a portrait of shipping and sailing on the Great Lakes, but because of recent weather events and conversations with Great Lakes area residents, it turned into something much larger. 

"What was conceived as a documentary about ferries and shipping on the Great Lakes became something else. During filming, the film crew realized there was a bigger story about how climate change affects the lives and livelihoods of people living in the region.

'While conducting interviews, everyone kept talking about how the climate was changing,' executive producer Leslie Johnson explained to me. ‘It was totally unprompted, and we realized that this was an important part of the story.’

The movie is packed with history and information about the role of these vast inland seas in the industrial development of North America. It delves into the history of the railcar ferries at the Straits of Mackinac and documents the importance of ice in the lives of people living around the Great Lakes, including commercial fisherman on Lake Superior, recreational ice fishers, pond hockey players, ice climbers, Native American Ojibwe, and Mackinac Islanders…

The imagery, insights, and observations about the changes underway are rich in detail and could stand alone as an equally compelling story. It’s almost like having two films rolled into one, but much of the historical background does provide an important backdrop to the modern-day challenges associated with the loss of ice on the Great Lakes."
Follow the link above for a trailer of the film and for the complete article.


New water management guide helps communities plan and conserve

The recent release of Water Management Resource Guide is giving a boost to water conservation in DuPage County, Illinois’ second most populated county. Residents throughout the county can now get help from community conservation coordinators to better understand the need to conserve water supplies and advocate for city-wide conservation efforts. It is all a part of the Water Conservation and Protection Program developed by the DuPage Water Commission. Along with conservation coordinators, the program provides easy tips for reducing water use at home—like repairing leaky toilets and watering lawns at specific times—and makes it easier for residents to learn about conservation efforts already underway in their communities. 

To prepare conservation coordinators for their new role, the water commission held a four-part workshop series in summer 2013 led by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Metropolitan Planning Council, and MWH Global. Workshop planners invited IISG’s water economist Margaret Schneemann to talk with conservation coordinators about one of the biggest challenges to water management: pricing. Her presentation focused on information from her Full-Cost Water Pricing Guidebook for Sustainable Community Water Systems. A summary of the presentation, Rates and Revenue, is included in the Water Management Resource Guide. 

Here is what Margaret had to say about the summer’s events: 

“I was excited to be invited by Abby Crisostomo at MPC to present my work on water rates at the DuPage Water Commission’s workshop series. As a resource economist with IISG, one of my roles has been to support regional implementation of the CMAP Water 2050 Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Supply/Demand Plan.  Designating a community conservation coordinator was a key recommendation made in the Water 2050 Plan, and it is terrific that the DuPage Water Commission not only implemented this recommendation but also provided training workshops and the summary resource guide. One conundrum facing conservation coordinators is that the result of successful water conservation—declines in water use—tends to decrease revenue. Water managers therefore need solutions to balance their water conservation goals with the financial resiliency of the system. In my work on this issue, I’ve sought to help planners better understand the relationships between rates, revenues, and water conservation as they craft water conservation plans for their communities. This workshop series brought together many great presenters and resources for the participants, and it was enjoyable to take part in.”

For further information on water conservation, planning, and management, visit our water supply page.


Next steps and next sections in the Grand Calumet River cleanup project

The future is looking bright for the Grand Calumet River. Completed and ongoing restoration projects along the heavily industrialized river have already removed or capped more than 2 million pounds of sediment ridden with toxins like PCBs and heavy metals. And late last year, the EPA took the first step towards cleaning up the final sections of river yet to be addressed.

It will be a long road to restoration, but this step means those who live and work nearby can expect to see a clean river bottom with a vibrant plant community as early as 2024.  

“This means a lot to the community,” said Caitie McCoy, IISG’s environmental social scientist. “I was recently at a meeting with community members in northwest Indiana who have been fighting for this river for over 50 years where the EPA announced their plans. Their reaction was almost a mixture of joy and disbelief. When you devote your whole life to something, making baby steps of progress along the way, it must be surreal to finally reach that moment. It is an honor to be a part of it.”

For now, efforts are focused on determining the feasibility of cleaning up four river segments: one in Gary, IN and three more in East Chicago, IN, where there is also funding to design a tailored cleanup plan. 

Remediation projects are big undertakings. One common strategy, for example, requires contaminated sediment to be dredged, pumped to shore, dried, and trucked off to fill sites certified to handle this kind of waste. At the same time, the water pulled out during dredging has to be treated before it can be returned to the river. 

To ensure the success of any new projects in these areas, the EPA is teaming up with the East Chicago Water Management District, the Gary Sanitary District and other local partners to take a closer look at restoration needs. In Gary, planning will likely be completed sometime this year, but it will be another year still before the group announces plans for the stretch flowing through East Chicago. Before any actual cleanup work can begin, though, additional funding and partners will be needed for both projects.   
The next few years will also prove significant for two other sections of river. Cleanup efforts at the river’s westernmost end in Hammond, IN are expected to kick off this year. And work on a larger segment of the river just a few miles to the east is expected to wrap up in 2015. There, construction crews have already removed much of the contaminated sediment along the river bed and are now turning their sights to nearby wetlands. Project partners have also begun removing invasive plants along this stretch to make room for native species that will be planted in 2015. 

You can read more about efforts to restore the Grand Calumet River and view a map of the project areas here

Efforts to restore the Grand Calumet River are part of the Great Lakes Legacy Act, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. 

*Photo 1 courtesy of Lloyd DeGrane
*Photo 2 courtesy of U.S. EPA


In the news: The long-term costs of Chicago’s connected waterways

The most recent report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding invasive species and threats to the Great Lakes recommends a pricey but perhaps necessary project – separating the Chicago River and Lake Michigan from each other. 

"Over the last decade or so, a huge range of interests — from environmental groups to fishermen to shipping experts to politicians — have raised the alarm over just how much this artificial connection has created an opening for invasive species such as the Asian carp to make their way through North America’s waterways. And the costs associated with the damage caused by these species have been high enough to prompt serious consideration of closing off the link between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes.

How high? First, consider the figure $18 billion. That’s the estimate the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released last week to re-insert a physical separation between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi system. The full report, the Great Lakes and Interbasin Mississippi River Study, was commissioned by Congress to address the growing threat of invasive species in the area known as the Chicago Area Waterway System. The final report details a wide spectrum of actions — ranging from essentially maintaining the status quo to engineering a complete separation over a 25-year period — but doesn’t offer recommendations on which course to take."
Visit the link above for the complete article, which includes very interesting numbers related to the threat of invasive species (and the long-term costs of managing/controlling them if no action is taken).


Winter edition of The Helm now available

The winter 2013/2014 edition of our newsletter The Helm is now available in print and online. Stories and projects covered in this latest issue include the hands-on work of student scientists in Illinois and Northwest Indiana, ongoing research on the nearshore food web in Lake Michigan, a new tool developed for communities and planners, and climate predictions for the Chicago area. 

Read this edition online here, and view past issues of The Helm here.  


New program helps communities evaluate, value, and enhance their public spaces

Public spaces are a critical and vital element of every community, but they’re value and impact can often be overlooked. Community groups, planners, neighborhood groups and more need tools that will help them evaluate their public spaces and plan for preserving, enhancing, and improving the shared spaces we sometimes take for granted. 

To help local decision makers harness the power of public spaces, IISG and Purdue University Extension have launched a new program, Enhancing the Value of Public Spaces, which offers continuing education and resources tailored to regional, community, business, and neighborhood leaders interested in building sustainable communities. The training program provides a framework for collecting data on community needs and using that data to plan public space improvements. 

“This program will help regions, communities, and neighborhoods preserve and enhance assets that define the area,” said Kara Salazar, sustainable communities extension specialist for Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Purdue University Extension. “The program will also help community leaders charged with managing public spaces and implementing new projects to build communities that are more resilient to economic and environmental changes.” 

Participants will work with Purdue Extension specialists and educators to learn more about the vital role parks, town centers, and other public spaces play in the long-term economic, social, and environmental health of communities. Collaborative activities will also introduce participants to best practices for improving public spaces and give them the tools they need to plan and implement projects tailored to their community. Participants are encouraged to bring laptops for this portion of the workshop. 

The program kicks off later this month with a series of workshops listed below. Purdue Extension specialists and educators will introduce best practices for improving public spaces and provide example projects that are already underway in the state of Indiana. Participants will also complete a strategic plan for a public space project tailored to their community.

Each workshop will begin with registration at 9:30 a.m. and run until 3:00 p.m. A catered lunch will be provided. 
January 23, 2014 – Harrison County Extension Office
February 6, 2014 – Allen County Extension Office
February 13, 2014 – Woodland Park, Portage
February 18, 2014 – Location TBD – Vigo County
February 27, 2014 – Gibson County Extension Office 

To learn more about Enhancing the Value of Public Spaces and other Purdue University and IISG sustainability programs and resources, contact IISG’s sustainable communities extension specialist Kara Salazar.


Public meeting next week to introduce Upper Trenton Channel cleanup plan

The U.S. EPA will be holding a public meeting to announce the draft of a cleanup plan for the contaminated sediment in the Upper Trenton Channel. Another project funded under the Great Lakes Legacy Act, this proposed cleanup would provide similar benefits to the environment and the community as seen in Sheboygan and the Grand Calumet River

The meeting also offers a chance for community members to provide input and information specific to the area, improvements they would like to see, and any concerns they may have. 

IISG is leading an outreach effort for this project, partnering with Michigan Sea Grant, Friends of the Detroit River, Detroit River Public Advisory Council, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan Department of Community Health, and the U.S. EPA to engage the public in the project and assess the many benefits of the project. 

The meeting is scheduled to take place Wednesday, January 15, at the Wyandotte Boat Club. Everyone is welcome, and there will be fact sheets and supplemental information available about the project as well. 

For more information about restoration projects like this, contact IISG’s Caitie McCoy and visit our coastal restoration products page.


Summer teacher workshop still making ripples

School is back in session and that means science teachers across southern Lake Michigan will be turning their sights to the Great Lakes. For the AP Environmental Science class at Zion-Benton Township High School, though, the issues facing nearby Lake Michigan have been in focus since the start of the year. 

Their teacher, Alex Stavropoulos, got the idea for some of his classroom and field activities after spending a week aboard the U.S. EPA R/V Lake Guardian this summer for the annual Shipboard and Shoreline Science Workshop. Alex wrote in to tell us what his class has been up to. 
Towards the beginning of the school year, my class spent about a month on our "Aquatic Habitats and Biodiversity" unit. After exploring the general nature of aquatic systems (both marine and freshwater), we took a closer look at our local water systems, specifically Lake Michigan. During this time, we discussed the history of the Great Lakes, identified the various ways in which humans have used and altered the makeup of the Great Lakes, spent two days conducting water-quality testing and macro-invertebrate sampling (using both biotic and abiotic indicators to compare water quality in various tributaries to that of the mouths in which they fed into Lake Michigan), and debated plausible methods to prevent invasive species such as the Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes. 

Throughout this entire unit, I found myself regularly referencing experiences I had during the Lake Guardian summer workshop. The experiences not only allowed me to better explain the complexity of some of these issues, but it also opened my students’ eyes to hands-on opportunities available in the world of science. It taught me a great deal about the Great Lakes, but, more importantly, it improved my ability to teach students about the Lakes' significance. I hope this program continues to be funded for years to come as it is a wonderful way of spreading both knowledge and passion regarding the importance of preserving the gift that is the Great Lakes.
Visit the Shipboard Science blog to hear what other teachers had to say about their experiences on Lake Ontario. 

This year’s workshop will take place on Lake Erie. Keep an eye on our blog in the coming months for more details and application information. 


Getting ready for gardening and outdoor season with upcoming shows

In addition to boaters and other recreational water users, IISG’s aquatic invasive species group has been working to reach out to water gardeners and landscapers about preventing the spread of invasive species in their fields as well. There are a number of water garden and pond plants that are known to be invasive, and both Illinois and Indiana have recently introduced rules preventing their sale. 

Beyond those species, though, the AIS team has information about alternative plants that are both beautiful and native to the region. There are a large number of plants for gardeners, landscapers, and property owners to choose that enhance their work without the threat of being (or becoming) invasive. 

The team will be visiting a number of garden and landscaping shows to share our latest information about aquatic invasive plants. They will also have more information about how easy it can be to prevent the spread of aquatic invaders. And there will be examples of invasive species for visitors to see up close as a way to then identify them. 

The aquatic invasive species group will kick off the busy season next weekend, January 10-12, at the Indianapolis Home and Garden show. Greg Hitzroth will be presenting during the show on how the spread of invasive species can be prevented through wise gardening practices. Then, just a few weeks later, the team will be at the iLandscape show in Schaumburg, Illinois from February 5-7. And in March the Chicago Flower and Garden show will take place at Navy Pier from March 15-22. 

Mark your calendars for the shows (also listed below). It’s never too early to start thinking of warmer weather and time in the garden (or just enjoying some sun). 

Indianapolis Home and Garden - January 10-12, 2014 - Indianapolis, IN 

iLandscape - February 5-7, 2014 - Schaumburg, IL

Chicago Flower and Garden Show - March 15-22, 2014 - Chicago, IL