Friday Foto: The calm before another polar vortex?

Let’s enjoy the beauty of fall along the Chicago River even though colder temps seem to have set in once again. Wondering what this year will look like after last winter’s record cold? Predictions for this coming winter have been the subject of much speculation. Molly Woloszyn will be talking about just that next Friday at Parkland College’s Staerkel Planetarium. We hope to see you there, but if you can’t make it, don’t worry. We will share the highlights on Twitter. (To see more IISG photos, visit Photoshelter.com.)


Grand Calumet partners get first-hand look at cleanup successes

For anyone familiar with the Grand Calumet River, the changes over the last few years are impossible to miss. The historically industrialized river, long ago abandoned by both people and wildlife, is now home to birds, fish, and other aquatic life in many areas. The revitalization is due to a series of remediation and restoration projects that will remove more than 2 million cubic yards—roughly 130,000 dump trucks—of contaminated sediment and add native plants to banks and marshes by 2015.    

The east branch of the river is one of these revitalized areas, and it is there that representatives from government agencies and non-profit organizations, including IISG’s Caitie McCoy, met earlier this month for a tour of the remediation projects.

From the Times of Northwest Indiana
The tour, coordinated by Save the Dunes, was aimed at highlighting the work and thanking representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, and U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., for their support in the efforts and encouraging support for future funding.  
"They've been our champions to maintain (Great Lakes Restoration Initiative) funding for the last four or five years," Nicole Barker, executive director of Save the Dunes, said. "We are indebted to them."
The group visited some of the river’s biggest success stories, including Roxana Marsh, which has been free of high levels of PCBs and heavy metals for over two years. They also heard from officials about local changes that are helping to secure the long-term health of the river. In Hammond, IN, for example, raw sewage that was previously discharged into the newly-remediated river is now being redirected to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of the tour came during the stop at Seidner Marsh. Remediation for this part of the river wrapped up earlier this year and attention has been turned to dredging wetlands and rebuilding habitats. The group was able to see these efforts first-hand as workers delivered barge after barge of fresh sand to be spread along the riverbed.

“It is important that these restoration projects do more than just remove contaminated sediment,” said Caitie. “We also want to help jumpstart wildlife populations, and that includes the invertebrates and microorganisms that live at the bottom of the river. The clean sand gives them a home, a place to burrow in.”

Cleanup and restoration on the Grand Calumet will continue for many years—six of the nine project areas are still in progress. But residents and visitors can expect to see a clean river bottom with a thriving plant community as early as 2024.

To read more about remediation projects on the Grand Calumet, visit the Indiana Department of Environmental Management website


How do you solve a problem like the dead zone?

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone was the topic of discussion by government officials and non-profit organization representatives from across the Mississippi River Basin in Alton, IL last week. Our own Michael Brennan and Lisa Merrifield were among those in the room and wrote in to share their impressions of the meeting.

But first, Michael brings us up to speed on the reason for the meeting and the group behind it all.  
“The hypoxic zone is a seasonal phenomenon in the Gulf region, where sudden outbreaks in algal communities spurred on by excess nitrogen and phosphorus lead to depleted oxygen levels in an area the size of New Jersey. Since it is rain events that wash excess nutrients into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf, the size of the hypoxic zone varies year-to-year. However, the average annual size has remained unchanged for decades. 

“State and federal agencies have been working towards a solution to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone for decades,” he added. “The Hypoxia Task Force, a group consisting of federal and state representatives, was established in 1997 to oversee a unified regional effort to reduce the size of the dead zone. Last week’s event was the group’s fall meeting.”

The day-long meeting touched on a variety of issues, including updates on ongoing efforts to understand the dynamics of the dead zone and to reduce the amount of nutrients carried from farm fields and city streets in stormwater runoff.

“The task force has been doing a lot of modeling exercises to determine the size and spread of the hypoxic zone,” said Lisa. “They are starting to think beyond the basics about how to more accurately characterize the impact of the zone, from biological to social and economic impacts. Many members expressed interest in engaging social scientists as they think about future strategies.”

“My main purpose for being there was to hear about the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which will be released this fall,” Lisa added. The strategy lays out a suite of best management practices for reducing nutrient losses from both point and non-point sources. It was developed by representatives from government agencies, agriculture, and non-profits as well as scientists and wastewater treatment professionals and represents the most comprehensive and integrated approach to date for tackling nutrients in Illinois. Along with the rest of the staff at the Illinois Water Resources Center, Lisa has spent the last year facilitating the development of the state’s nutrient strategy.

As a water quality specialist focused on nutrients in the Mississippi River, the meeting was particularly interesting for Michael.

“The most encouraging part was a hearing from a new organization that has thrown their hat into the ring: the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. The group consists of 65 mayors of riverfront communities from Minnesota to New Orleans who came together to preserve the local economies that depend on the Mississippi River and improve the integrity and sustainability of the river. They have already begun implementing practices that protect and restore water quality. The city of Grafton, IL, for example, restored a wetland in their community. Wetlands are natural landscape features that facilitate flood water storage, foster native vegetation, and provide valuable habitat for a wide variety of birds and other wildlife."

To learn more about hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, visit the task force website


In the news: Still no Asian carp in Great Lakes

Earlier this month, officials in Michigan announced that genetic material from silver carp, a species of Asian carp, had been discovered in the Kalamazoo River around 20 miles upstream from where the river flows into Lake Michigan. It was the first time a positive sample of eDNA had been found that close to the lake. 

The results drew national attention and had many concerned that it wouldn't be long until the infamous invader entered the Great Lakes. Further testing, though, reveals that there is no evidence of Asian carp in the river, Lake Michigan, or any of the other Great Lakes. 

"We are pleased these samples were negative, but that doesn't mean our efforts to keep Michigan's waters are over," DNR Fisheries Division Chief Jim Dexter said in a statement. 
Asian carp were imported in the South several decades ago, where they served a utilitarian role on fish farms. But with no natural predator, the prodigious eaters and reproducers quickly escaped and began steadily invading the Mississippi River system. 
Having arrived on the doorsteps of the Great Lakes, officials in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New York and others are working diligently to organize a strategy for keeping the invasive swimmers out. 
Environmentalists, ecologists and others say the carp could decimate food chains and habitats in the Great Lakes, diminishing biodiversity there and threatening a multibillion-dollar fishing industry.
The threat comes from the invaders ravenous diet and ability to out-compete native fish for food. In the Illinois River, they have already fundamentally changed the food web. 

From the Spring 2013 Helm
Asian carp do more than compete for food. They actually force native fish to change their diets, feeding on species lower on the food chain than they natural would. In a healthy food web, filter-feeders, like gizzard shad and paddlefish, eat a variety of plankton species, ensuring that there is enough food to go around. But Asian car have all but wiped out the larger zooplankton in the Illinois River, pushing fish that have historically relied on that food source to turn to smaller zooplankton and phytoplankton for a meal. As the number of Asian carp in an area grows, more and more native fish are left competing for a smaller supply of plankton. 
 To learn more about Asian carp and efforts to prevent their spread, visit our Aquatic Invasive Species page. 

***Photo courtesy of the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee 

2014 best year yet for clean boating programs

With the end of Chicago’s boating season right around the corner, we thought this would be a good time look back at this year's progress making boating and harbor activities more environmentally friendly.

The Illinois Clean Marina Program launched last year with one certified marina, 31st Street Harbor. This year, five new harbors joined the ranks by implementing a series of best management practices, bringing the state total to six in just its first year. Two more, North Point Marina and Diversey Harbor have also pledged to implement these same practices.

Clean boating includes preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS). It was a banner year for Clean Boats Crew, an outreach effort that gives boaters, anglers, and others the information they need to stop the spread of AIS. During its four-year tenure, the volunteer program has spread the word about AIS prevention to more than 8,000 recreational water users in Illinois and Indiana, with more than 3,500 people reached this year alone.

The idea behind Clean Boats Crew is simple. Volunteers visit boat ramps and docks during the height of the boating season to talk with boaters, anglers, and other recreational water users about AIS and to demonstrate cleaning techniques that can help stop their spread. This year, site leaders and volunteers were onsite at Chicago’s Burnham and Diversey harbors, as well as Illinois’s Chain O’ Lakes and North Point Marina and Indiana’s East Chicago and Portage marinas.

In Illinois, site leaders and volunteers introduced water users to three simple steps at the heart of the prevention campaign Be a Hero – Transport Zero™:

–Remove plants, animals, and mud from all equipment
–Drain all water from your boat and gear
–Dry everything thoroughly with a towel
With the season over, IISG and the Northeast Illinois Invasive Plant Partnership, co-organizers of the Clean Boats Crew program, have turned their sights to next year and are looking for others to join the effort. You can be part of the crew as either a site leader or a volunteer. For more information, visit the Clean Boats Crew page or contact Sarah Zack at szack@illinois.edu or 847-242-6440. 


Meet the dynamic duo behind the decision tool

We've talked a lot in the last year about our Tipping Points Planner, which helps watershed planning groups develop effective strategies for the protection of natural resources. But what about the people behind the tool? Its use of the latest research and cutting-edge technology is made possible by the tireless efforts of Jarrod Doucette and a team of web developers that now includes Brandon Beatty

Jarrod, our GIS and database specialist, began work on the decision support tool roughly three years ago. Throughout the process, he worked closely with researchers and outreach specialists to ensure the Tipping Points Planner includes the latest data and is accessible to a wide range of audiences. Jarrod's extensive experience as a GIS specialist and web developer working with universities and state agencies has been recognized by the GIS company Esri and from the Indiana Geographic Information Council. He holds a Master’s in geospatial information systems from State University of New York College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry. 

The tipping points and indicators program is now up and running, but there is still a lot to do to make sure the tool stays current and user-friendly. More and more watershed groups are integrating it into their planning process, including several in northwestern Indiana and northeastern Illinois. That is where Brandon Beatty comes in. 

Brandon joined Sea Grant earlier this year as our web designer and developer. Prior to that, he worked as a software developer on a project with the Purdue University libraries. His past work in design and development earned him an American Advertising Award in 2009. Brandon earned a Bachelor’s in computer graphics technology at Purdue University. 


Community spotlight: Macon County

Permanent medicine collection programs make it easy for people to rid their homes of unwanted pharmaceuticals, but they can be difficult to get off the ground. That's where our Unwanted Meds team comes in. They have helped communities across Illinois and Indiana purchase collection boxes and raise awareness of drop-off programs, including Illinois' Macon County. 

From Rx for Action: 
A few months back, IISG was contacted by Laurie Rasmus of the Macon County Environmental Management Department. She was aware of the issues surrounding improper disposal of pharmaceuticals and wanted to know how we could work together to provide Decatur residents with a convenient way to safely dispose of their unwanted medicines. IISG has found that partnerships like this work really well. So we wanted to start sharing the stories of communities with medicine take-back programs with people who may be thinking about staring a program in their area. Laurie took a few minutes of her time to answer some of our questions about Macon County's need for prescription take-back boxes and why they are so important to the community.
How did you learn about safe medicine disposal, and how did this initiative come about? 
Our department first learned about safe medicine disposal through the one-day take-back collections sponsored by the DEA. 
Our office receives many inquiries from residents who want to learn how to dispose of unused and expired medicine in a safe manner that is not harmful to the environment. We informed these residents of the drop-off box operated by the Maroa Police Department. Most were pleased to learn about the Maroa drop-off site but many mentioned that a Decatur-based location would be more convenient. So, we inquired with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant about the possibilities for a collection site in Decatur and received encouraging information. We then approached Macon County Sheriff Thomas Schneider about a drop-off site at his office. Sheriff Schneider was enthusiastic about establishing a collection box in the lobby of the Macon County Law Enforcement Center. 
Why do you think this is an important issue?   
Safe, secure medicine disposal reduces the risks of accidental poisonings, drug misuse and pollution. Read more. 


In the news: Stormwater forum brings out North Shore residents

Residents of Chicago's North Shore packed a high school auditorium earlier this week to hear from several local stormwater experts. Discussions
hit on the most pressing issues surrounding stormwater—pollution, flooding, and management—but one topic in particular drew the crowd's attention. 

From Winnetka Talk: 
One of the largest and most discussed projects in the north shore remains Winnetka’s proposed Willow Road stormwater tunnel. The tunnel would run underneath Willow Road from Glendale Avenue east to Lake Michigan. 
Residents have raised concerns of more than 1,000 acres of drainage area feeding into the tunnel, and its possible affect on Lake Michigan’s water quality. 
“The goals that were laid out for this project were to limit the risk of structural flooding,” said Joe Johnson, vice president of MWH Americas, Inc., which is designing the tunnel. “We’re trying to limit the flooding that gets into people’s homes and causes structural damage.” 
Johnson said the village would use its current stormwater infrastructure during smaller storms, while the tunnel proposal is designed to accommodate larger rain events, such as a 100-year storm. 
According to Johnson, the tunnel is being pursued due to Winnetka’s west side acting as “a shallow bowl” and that some areas of the west side are below the 10-year flood level of the Skokie River, making them susceptible to flooding. 
“There is a real challenge to draining that part of the village,” Johnson said. “Areas east of Hibbard Road in Winnetka have very low permeability soil. That affects our thinking in how we address flooding in those areas.” Read more


This bobber sports an important AIS message

Following up on yesterday's message that prevention is key to stopping aquatic invasive species (AIS), we share this image of a Be a Hero, Transport Zero bobber (no, it's not a Christmas tree ornament).

AIS can be introduced and spread through a variety of activities including those associated with recreational water users. For example, when an angler releases bait fish at the end of a day’s fishing or a water gardener disposes of excess plants in a local waterway, they could also be accidentally introducing AIS.

If you plan on enjoying the fall colors while out on the water, keep in mind the three simple steps to do your part to prevent aquatic invasive species from moving from one waterbody to another: 

·        Remove plants, animals, and mud from all equipment.
·        Drain water from live wells and bait buckets.
·        Dry items thoroughly with a towel. 

If you would like more information about AIS and the Be a Hero, Transport Zero campaign, visit our website.


AIS detective work involves species profiling

Last week's Science Friday on NPR, broadcasting from the University of Notre Dame, included an interview with David Lodge, a biologist who has been a key investigator in assessing the pathways and risks of aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes. In fact, the interview focused on Lodge as an "environmental detective" due to his work with environmental DNA. This technique allows invasive species trackers to detect the trace presence of a fish through water sampling. Most recently, Asian carp DNA has been found in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

But, in the struggle to cope with these invaders, prevention is crucial. The interview also
touched on extensive work at Notre Dame to develop species profiles and risk assessment tools. This research helped inform efforts in Indiana to be proactive, and led to a ban on 28 plant species in the state.

From a 2012 HELM article:
To determine which plants imported for the aquarium and water garden trades posed the greatest threat to the state’s waterways, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IN DNR) relied on a risk assessment tool developed by the Aquatic Plant Working Group. The group was formed, organized, and facilitated by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant at the request of IN DNR and included representatives from the aquatic plant industry, aquarium and water garden hobbyists, state agencies, academia, and non-governmental organizations. They used information provided by University of Notre Dame researchers to develop a tool that evaluates a plant based on factors such as its history of invasion, its ability to survive in Indiana habitats, and how difficult it is to control.
Many of the plants that made the list have been used in aquariums or water gardens in Indiana for years. Others have already been discovered in waterways throughout the state, sparking large-scale eradication projects. For example, efforts to remove the fast-growing weed Hydrilla verticillata from Lake Manitou have been ongoing for more than six years and cost the state millions of dollars. Hydrilla is believed to have entered Lake Manitou through trade.
This work has not been limited to Indiana plants. For starters, in 2013, Illinois added the designated Indiana plants into its Injurious Species List. And there's more:
The success of the risk assessment tool in Indiana has sparked interest from officials in the Great Lakes region and at a national level. In fact, researchers at the University of Notre Dame (and Loyola University Chicago) were awarded a three-year grant from the U.S. EPA Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to develop risk assessment tools for commercially sold fish, mollusks, crustaceans, reptiles, and amphibians. IISG’s aquatic invasive species outreach specialists are working with researchers to coordinate and facilitate regular working meetings with state and province resource managers to develop a single set of tools that can be used in each of the eight states and two provinces that make up the Great Lakes region.