Intern update: Lauren Schnoebelen

August 10th, 2016 by

Lauren Schnoebelen interned in Chicago with IISG Water Resource Economist Margaret Schneemann. Lauren is a recent graduate from Northern Michigan University with a major in environmental science, a concentration in natural resources, and a minor in sustainability. 

This summer I spent my time working as the Water Policy and Pricing intern for IISG at the offices of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was excited to work on policy issues and get familiar with township and village ordinances for water pricing, but I had never worked with large data sets before.

At first I was a little overwhelmed, but once I started getting the hang of it, I really enjoyed it because I got the opportunity to see what so many communities around me were doing to manage their water systems. After working for a month and a half on collecting as much data as I could get on water, sewer, and possible storm water rates, I needed to call village halls and water facilities to get any missing information.

The hope was to have all the rates available for the 2017 fiscal year. This gave me the opportunity to improve my communication skills by talking to dozens of people about what they charge their residents for water and sewer services. With this project done, I’m really excited to see how the final presentation of it will be in the Northeast Illinois Water and Wastewater Rates Dashboard.

Another opportunity that I was given was becoming a co-author of a published literature review. I helped to write about the economic value of ecosystem services in the Great Lakes region. This project allowed me to create and organize multiple tables displaying all the studies that were used in the paper and write summaries based on their subcategories of threatened ecosystem services. I also helped in editing and arranging the final layout of the literature review.

Throughout my summer, I was going to monthly meetings for the Northwest Water Planning Alliance and was involved in creating a community outreach brochure on establishing new lawns through seed or sod and their water requirements. This helped me see what communities are currently doing to work on water conservation and also how community outreach can lead to suggestions for policy change.

This internship gave me an opportunity that I haven’t had before. I worked on so many different aspects of water conservation which gave me great experience in creating a database, academic research and writing, and community involvement and outreach. With these skills, I know I will be extremely competitive in finding a full-time position in my field.

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

Climate change may be a key driver in managing nutrient pollution

August 8th, 2016 by

Nutrients that flow into lakes and streams from urban and rural environments are a key cause of algal blooms, which can then crash into low-oxygen ‘dead zones.’ In fact, Illinois, with its many acres of farmland and its major municipalities, is a key contributor to nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers at the Illinois State Water Survey set out to better calculate nutrient levels in waterways, the dynamics of when nutrient pollution happens, and what this means in the face of a changing climate.

With support from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG), hydrologist Momcilo Markus and his team looked at years of data from 14 rural and suburban watersheds in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio to get a better understanding of the factors that influence pollution rates.

The project is part of a larger regional effort to understand the science behind nutrient pollution and develop management strategies based on the findings. This effort is being led by University of Illinois Extension, Prairie Research Institute, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (Illinois EPA), Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA), Illinois Water Resources Center, and IISG.


Markus’ work improved the accuracy of estimating nutrient loading from limited monitoring data. Typically, for most waterways, monitoring is infrequent—several data points are extrapolated for a year. The researchers used a rich Ohio data source where there is as much as 38 years of daily measures from 10 streams. This served as a Rosetta stone of sorts, and by modifying their calculations, they were able to make estimates of nutrient loading in Illinois and the Midwest more accurate.

“We adjusted our model to reflect reality as measured in real data,” explained Markus.

This new model could help scientists better measure of the amount of nutrients leaving the 13 watersheds prioritized in the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. In addition to continuous statewide tracking by eight U.S. Geological Survey super gauges for roughly the past year, natural resource managers have historic data that can be analyzed using Markus’ model to estimate long-term trends in Illinois’ statewide contributions to the Gulf.

The comprehensive study also reveals key patterns in nitrate, phosphorus, and sediment pollution. For example, although there is more precipitation in summer, river flows and nutrient levels are at their highest in winter and spring, when there are fewer plants to help prevent erosion and absorb nutrients. In fact, the five largest river flow events in a watershed carry more than half of the nutrients that run off it each year.

“A wet year in terms of nutrient loading is defined by large storm events,” said Markus. “More precipitation, on average, in a given year doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in pollution. The increase is tied to heavy precipitation.”

The consensus of climate models shows that by mid-century in northern Illinois, there may well be a 15-30 percent increase in intensity and frequency of heavy storms.

For Illinois EPA, IDOA, and others charged with implementing the state’s nutrient strategy and reducing nutrient loading to the Gulf by 45 percent, these findings could lead to a more accurate understanding of the impact of their efforts. Farmers, city officials, and wastewater treatment plants across the Prairie State have been ramping up practices that reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss since the state began work on the strategy in 2012.

DSCN5194e-1024x768At the same time, government agencies, university researchers, and others are keeping an eye on the amount of nutrients leaving the state to help determine whether current strategy practices are enough to reach reduction goals. Understanding the critical role high-intensity storms play in nutrient loads could help ensure the value of these efforts isn’t obscured by a wet year. And knowing that these types of storms will be more frequent gives the state lead time to adapt strategy practices to the changing climate.

“What we design today, may not be sufficient in the future,” said Markus. “We can speculate that there will be more pollution, so management strategies that work today may not down the road.”

Anjanette Riley is a contributing author.

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

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.

Discovery Grant research reveals that X-ray chemical turns toxic in disinfected drinking water

July 25th, 2016 by

University of Illinois geneticist Michael Plewa discovered that a non-toxic medical diagnostic chemical that accumulates in drinking water sources can become a toxic chemical as water goes through the disinfection process.

This study, funded as an Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Discovery Grant project, revealed that wastewater generated by hospitals can contain toxic disinfection by-products associated with X-ray contrast media. Contrast media are widely-used substances, which when ingested, can enhance medical imaging.

IISG has funded 41 Discovery grants since 2009—these small pots of money are awarded to support graduate student work, to help when researchers need a final boost to finish a project, or to explore new questions or follow up on data that may grow into something larger.

Plewa’s project provides a great example of how a Discovery Grant can open the door to new knowledge and provide a stepping stone to answer bigger questions. It’s also a story about how when data doesn’t fit one’s hypothesis, the quest for answers can lead to new discoveries.

In previous research, Plewa’s lab was looking at the connection between naturally-occurring iodide in drinking water sources and the creation of very toxic substances through the disinfection process. In their study of 23 cities, they measured the level of toxic iodinated disinfection by-products (DBPs) in the drinking water. “Surprisingly, four cities that had no natural iodine in the water­ still had these toxic iodinated DBPs,” said Plewa. “Where was the iodine coming from?”

At a scientific conference, a colleague suggested that the iodine source in these four water supplies may be from X-ray contrast media, and Plewa set out to find out if that was right. Sure enough, the water samples were tested and had high levels of iopamidol, the most commonly used contrast media.

“We let the data carry us to help us understand,” said Plewa. “It’s a puzzle and an adventure. It’s very exciting.

“Through the Discovery Grant, we were able to confirm that iopamidol plus disinfection led to disinfection by-products that were more toxic than iopamidol alone or disinfection alone.”

This project was selected for a 2012 U.S. EPA Scientific and Technological Achievement Award (Level I). According to the EPA, Level 1 is awarded to those who have accomplished an exceptionally high-quality research or technological effort. Awarded work has national significance or has high impact on a broad area of science and technology.

The findings from this project also led to a $495,000 National Science Foundation grant and international collaboration. Working with scientists at the Federal Institute of Hydrology in Germany, the University of Akron in Ohio, and at U.S. EPA, Plewa was able to further study the toxicity of contrast media and the mechanisms of how the chemical change happens.

“When we studied five contrast agents, only iopamidol transformed into a toxic substance during disinfection, but iopamidol is also the most widely used.” said Plewa.

And as their adventure in science continued, Plewa and his team learned that their theory of how iopamidol was transformed was, in fact, wrong. Instead, they discovered it was a very different mechanism, which opened a door to new information. They were able to identify a molecule associated with these toxic chemicals that inhibits an enzyme involved in cellular metabolism. This molecule could be contributing to neurological diseases, like Alzheimer’s, or to birth defects.

“There’s much about this that we still don’t understand,” said Plewa, and he defers to medical researchers to make any direct health connections.

Despite decades of research on drinking water disinfection by-products, Plewa sees water disinfection as the greatest public health achievement of the 20th Century. “Lincoln’s children died of water-borne disease. Before the advent of water disinfection in 1908, water borne disease and death was common in the U.S. With water purification we have dramatically reduced the risk of acute disease.

“But since 1974, we’ve also identified over 600 disinfection by-products, which is maybe only 50 percent of what’s in the water,” he added. “And of these, we’ve analyzed only a few. It makes sense to identify the most toxic chemicals and modify the disinfection process to reduce their presence. The goal is to make good drinking water better.”

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

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.

Case Study: Algonquin, Ill. saves money while it conserves water

March 3rd, 2016 by

Municipalities throughout Illinois have been making determined efforts to conserve water though policy changes, education, outreach, and water-loss reduction strategies. The Illinois Section of the American Water Works Association (ISAWWA) Water Efficiency Committee and IISG assembled seven case studies from the ISAWWA Water Saver award applications to highlight water efficiency achievements.

Algonquin is the third story in our series.

Rapid population growth is forcing Algonquin, Illinois, a city of about 30,000 located 40 miles northwest of Chicago, to reevaluate its water use strategy.

The village developed its initial water conservation program in 2003 at a time when the system was significantly strained. It included outside watering restrictions, public outreach, operations improvements, and a seasonal water rate structure. The program was a success, resulting in a water use reduction of roughly 30 gallons per person/day.

Because ongoing population growth in the village is expected to put upward pressure on water demand, Algonquin’s next step was to update the Comprehensive Water System Master Plan to evaluate the potential of further water conservation efforts to meet long-term water demands. The goals were to evaluate overall water system performance, evaluate current patterns of water use, predict future patterns of water use, and determine the infrastructure necessary to use less water resources.

While stewardship and sustainability are the main drivers of water conservation in Algonquin, village leaders also wanted to understand how an effective water conservation program can result in a reduction in capital expenditures through the timing of capital investments.

The Village of Algonquin Comprehensive Water System Master Plan was completed in 2012 by Engineering Enterprises, Inc. As the plan moves forward, the savings will be significant.

When comparing current water use trends and potential less resource intensive scenarios, the planners found a nearly $6,360,000 capital cost difference and showed that water conservation policy can have a huge impact.

“The Master Plan has been a great resource to refer back to,” said Andy Warmus, Algonquin utilities superintendent.

“I use the document in some fashion every day.  Can’t imagine not having the information at our fingertips.”

In the news: Study shows bacteria developing resistance to antibacterial compounds

September 20th, 2013 by

Recent research in the Chicago area shows that bacteria are developing a resistance to a common antibacterial chemical used in many household and personal care products. 

From The Cary Institute

“Invented for surgeons in the 1960s, triclosan slows or stops the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mildew. Currently, around half of liquid soaps contain the chemical, as well as toothpastes, deodorants, cosmetics, liquid cleansers, and detergents. Triclosan enters streams and rivers through domestic wastewater, leaky sewer infrastructure, and sewer overflows, with residues now common throughout the United States.
Emma Rosi-Marshall, one of the paper’s authors and an aquatic ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York explains: ‘The bacterial resistance caused by triclosan has real environmental consequences. Not only does it disrupt aquatic life by changing native bacterial communities, but it’s linked to the rise of resistant bacteria that could diminish the usefulness of important antibiotics.'”
Read more about this recent research and some of the implications of these antibacterial compounds at the link above. 

Full-cost water planning guidebook now available

January 30th, 2013 by
One of the most important planning concerns in the coming years will be ensuring the smart, sensible use and long-term availability of water resources for a growing population. This is especially true in large urban areas like Chicago, which has adopted the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan to address and prepare for future growth. 
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s Water Resource Economist, Margaret Schneemann, has developed a Full-Cost Water Pricing Guidebook for Sustainable Community Water Systems. For the past four years, IISG has partnered with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) to bring Schneemann to the Water 2050: Northeastern Illinois Water Supply/Demand Plan implementation program and launch several collaborative projects throughout northeastern Illinois.  
Since both Water2050 and the long-range GO TO 2040 comprehensive plan recommend full-cost pricing for drinking water to promote water conservation and address aging infrastructure, the Full-Cost Water Pricing Guidebook is designed for local decision makers interested in exploring full-cost pricing as a tool for sustainable community water supply management. The first section provides mayors, village managers, planners, board and council members, and interested residents with the reasons why such planning is important. The second section offers a basic ‘how to do it’ overview for readers interested in learning more, and the third section explores one of the most important decisions in setting water rates, designing the rate structure. Margaret has also developed a downloadable Powerpoint presentation providing an overview of full-cost pricing, available at the guidebook link above.
For further information about water supply issues and planning, visit our water supply page on the website, and you can contact Margaret directly for additional information and print copies of the guidebook.

CMAP wins award for water supply planning

January 25th, 2013 by
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) was recently recognized with a National Planning Excellence award for their work developing GO TO 2040 – a comprehensive regional plan that unites and coordinates seven counties infrastructure development.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s Margaret Schneeman, who works directly with CMAP, was involved in the plan development and implementation, and Martin Jaffe served on the Regional Water Supply planning group. Their efforts, combined with the expertise and work of dozens of individuals and agencies, resulted in the completion of the regional plan that will enhance sustainable development and planning throughout 284 communities in and around the Chicago area. 

The summarized plan can be read here, and you can visit the GO TO 2040 link above to read the complete plan.
The American Planning Association awards programs, individuals, and agencies that utilize and implement planning techniques designed to create more sustainable communities. Visit the National Planning Awards 2013 webpage to see the complete list of award winners, including information about the GO TO 2040 plan. 
You can also visit our Water Supply page to learn more about the importance of planning on water quality, safety, and availability.
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