Middle schoolers get their hands wet at Peoria 4-H STEM camp

July 26th, 2016 by

At the start of July, IISG and the Illinois Water Resources Center took part in the annual 4G STEM Camp in Peoria, Illinois. The camp, coordinated by University of Illinois Extension 4-H and Bradley University, introduces seventh- and eighth-grade girls to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The forty participants gladly retreated from the hot sun and humid weather to a Bradley University laboratory to learn about green infrastructure, a water management approach the city of Peoria is relying on to help with its combined sewer overflow (CSO) issues.

“What do you think this area looked like 500 years ago?” asked IISG and Illinois Water Resources Center Stormwater Specialist Eliana Brown who led the workshop.

Hands shot up as the campers described the prairies and forests they imagined once covered the land compared with the homes and businesses that make up the city today.


Tynasia McCalain, 12, acts a “rainmaker” as part of the workshop.

Brown’s point was driven home with the use of an activity that simulates the problems with developing land without providing a way to capture stormwater that otherwise washes into local waterways.

Using water, cups, and sponges as stand-ins for rainstorms, the Illinois River, and the Peoria landscape, the girls were able to draw parallels with the issues that Peoria is facing.

“There are many things happening in Peoria related to the river that engage city employees and landscape designers,” said Judy Schmidt, 4-H metro youth development educator at Illinois Extension and one of the camp’s organizers. “It seemed like a perfect time to engage the girls in discussions about how they are impacted by the quality of the water in the river and how they impact it as well.”


Illinois Water Resources Center intern Ashley Rice, center, helps out the campers with workshop.

Elizabeth Setti, who will be going into seventh grade at Washington Gifted School, came away from the session with a better understanding of the problems and the possible solutions.

“It was really interesting to see how we had new ideas to make the sewage not overflow,” Setti said. “I knew about the rain barrels, but I didn’t know about the rain gardens.”

It will take at least twenty years to come close to solving Peoria’s CSO concerns with green infrastructure, and with the right resources the girls can help with the effort.

“I want to empower them to transform their community and to be that generation that creates the change that has to happen. They have to be the ones to do it,” said Brown.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.

Intern update: Ashley Rice

July 26th, 2016 by

When I started working at the Illinois Water Resources Center in May, I had no idea what kind of summer I had signed up for. Needless to say, I hit the ground running. On my third day, we traveled to Chicago for an overnight meeting with IISG, and other state agencies. We discussed current issues, future plans, plus introduced new employees, and interns, like myself. In an unfamiliar place with new people and environmental issues new to my knowledge, I was welcomed warmly, and always encouraged to express my thoughts and opinions.

Next, a rainy Memorial Day weekend came, and with a newfound perspective of water’s role, I traveled across the state to Quincy, Illinois to visit my grandmother. Without having to do much searching, water’s effects were all around me during the trip—the green grass, beautiful flowers, wildlife, woods, and bluffs near the Illinois, and Mississippi rivers. Feeling refreshed, I started diligently planning and working on the blog for the summer. I researched, and wrote my first post on the Fox River in northern Illinois, which seemed appropriate given my recent trip to Chicago. I also went to several video shoots for various outreach projects.

I later attended the Agriculture Water Quality Partnership Forum tech-subgroup meeting in Springfield, as well as the Nutrient Management Council meeting in Champaign. The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy—something I studied in my agriculture classes—was put into action as the different agencies, and organizations worked together. In contrast, I then had the privilege of interviewing my dad about what conservation practices he implements on our family farm. It was amazing to not only first-hand explore these issues, but to apply, and build upon concepts I previously studied.

As someone with a strong agricultural and farm background, I realize the importance of sustaining land, wildlife, and of course, the human population. As increasingly more people move to urban environments, and are further removed from agriculture, education will only continue to be more important. I cannot wait to start my senior year at Illinois State University, apply to graduate schools, and pursue a career in natural resources as well as environmental and agriculture education. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities the Illinois Water Resources Center has given me, and even more so, the wonderful people I am fortunate to have worked with.


Ashley, center, helps out the campers with a stormwater workshop earlier this summer in Peoria, Illinois.

Overall, the passion my co-workers have for water related issues is truly inspiring. The wealth of knowledge, and variety of personal and educational experiences creates a very interesting dynamic. I am leaving better versed on nutrient issues, stormwater, green infrastructure, and how all agencies must collaborate to solve problems.

Through teaching an educational STEM camp, interviewing farmers, attending meetings, video shoots, and tweeting I became a better agricultural communicator. Blogging regularly also made me a stronger writer, researcher, and critical thinker. In reality, there is no cut-and-dry answer or formula to solve all environmental issues. It is something we all must work together and compromise on in order to improve, and sustain water resources, and all life that depends on it. No matter where you live, water is something not to take for granted, but to embrace. After all, we would not be here without it.

Peoria stormwater issue reaches a tipping point

June 7th, 2016 by

Forty people gathered in a conference room at the Peoria Riverfront Museum on a snowy January day. Artists, activists, public officials, union representatives, academics, and retirees were there to participate in the first of several planning workshops. They were taking a hard look at the city they call home, and imagining the city they would like it to become.

“The potential is so amazing, its geography, its natural and cultural history,” said Anthony Corso, Peoria’s chief innovation officer and director of the Innovation Team that helped organize the meeting. “It’s a sad state we’re in right now, but with the right motivations we can change direction.”

Corso was charged with addressing one of the most pressing issues Peoria has: combined sewer overflow. When a wet-weather condition arises and rain and melting snow overwhelm the system, this can result in raw sewage dumping into the Illinois River.

The problem, which for years has plagued the city, is being closely watched by the United States and Illinois Environmental Protection Agencies. The message the agencies gave the city was clear: Develop a plan to fix it.


Kara Salazar, IISG sustainable communities Extension specialist, introduces Tipping Points to Peoria.

Kara Salazar, sustainable communities Extension specialist with IISG, led that visioning session workshop using a complex, web-based planning tool, Tipping Points and Indicators. The tool is a collaboration of 22 scientists and nine institutions. It compiles research from around the Great Lakes that identifies impacts on water quality from multiple land uses—agriculture and urban—in various locations, particularly near lakes and streams.

Tipping Points uses data to help communities and planners understand how close their watershed is to ecological thresholds and what the watershed will look like if land-use decisions continue on the same course. Cross a tipping point, and you risk not being able to rehabilitate an impacted region.


Peoria Innovation Team members, from left, project managers Kathryn Shackelford and Kate Green and director Anthony Corso along the Illinois River

Before this Peoria project, Tipping Points had not been used on such a heavily urbanized location. Purdue PhD student Jingqiu Chen studied the impacts urbanization has on water quality and developed an additional modeling tool specifically based on Peoria’s stormwater issues. The tool’s ultimate goal is to help communities determine the best way possible—ecologically and economically—to maintain and restore healthy water conditions.

“Peoria has an issue they’re trying to resolve and there are very costly solutions to it, but we’re helping them explore alternatives that are less costly and would provide other environmental benefits as well,” said Dr. Bernie Engle, Purdue department head of Agricultural and Biological Engineering leading the project with Jingqiu Chen.


One way to do that is green infrastructure, which can include parks and open spaces, or installing more porous surfaces. Each of those choices will have positive and negative effects on the community and the goal is to pick the suite that match community values.

The city’s goal is to resolve its problem with 100 percent green infrastructure. If the plan is successful, Peoria would be the first in the nation.

Tipping Points is helping Peoria figure out not only what environmental variables need attention, but how to go about choosing among the many green infrastructure options. The program is so targeted, it can, for instance, even help a community like Peoria set aside land for agritourism or rehabilitate wildlife populations.

Peoria will be getting lots of help along the way. University of Illinois Extension and Illinois Water Resources Center will offer guidance to the city to do its part in addressing the state’s ongoing nutrient loss reduction strategy as well as provide education opportunities.

“We plan to help residents of all ages learn how to manage stormwater in a different way by showing them what they can do—even in their own homes,” said Eliana Brown, IISG stormwater specialist. “They have an opportunity to be part of the stormwater solution that will help protect the Illinois River.”

This story appears in the latest edition of  The Helm.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension.

Bioreactors in tile drains can reduce nitrogen by 25 percent

March 31st, 2016 by

Dig it and forget it—that’s one of the biggest appeals of woodchip bioreactors, one of many nitrogen-reducing practices recommended in the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

The bacteria living in these long, narrow trenches remove nitrogen carried through farm tile lines through a process known as denitrificaiton. The result is an average annual nitrogen reduction of 25 percent for roughly 10 years—and with minimal maintenance for the farmer.

But don’t just take our word for it. Hear what University of Illinois researchers Mark David and Laura Christianson had to say about this conservation agriculture practice this video.


How do you solve a problem like the dead zone?

October 29th, 2014 by
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

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