Renewable Energy: Preserving our most precious resource

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117933519931510.jpg’, ‘Photo by Sonia Vogl’, ‘Bob Vogl (left) with Fred Schneider and his homemade rainwater storage tank.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11793351663045.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of CDF Web site’, ‘Dr. Gerould Wilhelm, director, conservation Design Forum, Elmhurst, Ill.‘);

Our abundant supplies of fuel, electricity, food and water make those aspects of our existence pleasant and convenient. We are driven by the notion that ever-increasing consumption of goods and services makes for the good life. Our detachment from the natural world obscures the reality that our lives are dependent on the healthy functioning of ecosystems. As we watch acres of farms and woodlands become subdivisions, malls and expressways, we often hail these actions as economic progress while ignoring or dismissing the ecological costs.

Some ecologists are calling attention to the damage we wreak on healthy ecosystems. They point out the high cost of assuming nature can absorb our continuous onslaught and wonder how well future generations will live with degraded environmental conditions.

The loss of honeybees, key pollinators of many of our food sources, or fish dying in the Great Lakes may capture our attention for a few minutes, but we quickly return to our more immediate concerns.

A baffling trait of modern human behavior is how quickly we dismiss the long-term environmental implications of our actions in favor of some short-term gain that satisfies us. At the Prairie Preservation Society of Ogle County’s annual banquet, Dr. Gerould Wilhelm, co-author of the authoritative text, Plants of the Chicago Region, commented that a new subdivision near Joliet is being built over an aquifer that has only 12 years of water left to serve it.

Wilhelm pointed out that much of the glaciated midwest consisted of natural wetlands, lakes, streams and rivers formed directly from precipitation or indirectly from ground water discharge to the surface. The rocks and soils through which the water moved influenced its chemical characteristics and provided a diverse habitat supporting 700 native wetland species.

At the time of European settlement, the Illinois River, which drains nearly half the state, was a smooth, sluggishly-flowing body of water. Very little of the 37 inches of annual rainfall falling on northeast and central Illinois was discharged as surface runoff. It either percolated into aquifers, discharged slowly into seepage areas or evaporated into the air.

Over time, we have come to view rainfall as a problem to manage rather than a valuable, life-sustaining resource to conserve and protect. Development strategies focus on collecting and directing surface rainwater to a detention pond, a nearby stream or a storm sewer system. Little thought is given to allowing that water to infiltrate into the ground to recharge the local water table. Recycling local water supplies could make us less willing to freely apply chemicals to our lawns.

Wilhelm advocates that sustainable design should seek to retain water where it falls, treating it as a resource rather than discharging it as a waste product. Our buildings should detain and use rainwater. Site drainage systems should replicate natural hydrologic patterns.

In the 1970s, Perth, Australia, recognized the region would soon be facing a water shortage if existing development patterns were not changed. But development proceeded as though water were a limitless resource. In the midst of a multi-year drought, Australians are awakening to the realization that they must learn to live in a drier climate. While farmers may be denied water to irrigate their crops, many suburbanites remain committed to watering their lawns, gardens and tennis courts, disbelieving that water resources are being stretched to their limits.

To supplement water supplies, treated sewage water is being piped into underground tanks and allowed to slowly filter into the water table. Ocean water is being converted to drinking water by a process four times as costly as conventional water treatment. But simply providing additional, more costly supplies of water ignores the far less costly and less environmentally damaging option of abandoning the fetish for green lawns and lush gardens. Native plants adapted to local climates can adorn our yards and public spaces while using far fewer resources.

While water problems in this area have been intermittent, the same desire for green lawns and conventional economic development which sends rainwater rushing downstream rather than using it to recharge the local water table suggests that water problems will re-emerge here. Some local citizens have designed simple systems to capture rainwater off their roofs for gardens and trees. Not only does this avoid wasting the precious resource, it places fewer demands on the local water table.

Editor’s note: The image that accompanied last week’s article, “Freedom Field update,” was courtesy of Larson & Darby Group.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.

from the May 16-22, 2007, issue

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