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Protecting Rock River water quality

May 4, 2011

Gully management with straw bales and rock check dam on the Vogl property. (Photo by Sonia Vogl)

Greater effort needed to protect water quality of the Rock River

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Efforts to reduce environmental damage fall far short of what is needed to ensure environmental and human well-being. The Rock River Trail initiative brings new energy to ongoing efforts to restore environmental quality.

Managing water supplies around our homes, in our cities and on the land is an increasing challenge. A major focus should include slowing the flow of water off the land and streets and trapping more of the pollutants at their source. Installing green roofs on buildings absorbs rainfall and releases it slowly. Rain barrels, rain gardens and simple swells and swales in a lawn reduce the speed at which water flows off the land.

On agricultural lands, properly designed and planted filter strips remove sediment, organic material, nutrients and chemicals carried in water runoff. More sediment trapped in filter strips means less nitrogen and phosphorus reaches a waterway. The compounds still leaving the fields will stimulate algae and plant growth in lakes and streams, causing human health problems and producing fish kills. Limiting phosphates in lawn fertilizer reduces the problem.

Of increasing concern is the use of reed canary grass on waterways and filter strips. Its seeds are carried by water and deposited in flood-prone areas. It can overwhelm native vegetation, dramatically reducing biodiversity. By using native grasses and forbs to control runoff, their seeds will be carried, increasing the opportunity to restore native vegetation.

Saving existing wetlands and replacing those lost to development helps to retain water on the land, allowing it to recharge our aquifers.

Check dams are another means to slow runoff. They can be as simple as a fiber attached to stakes in the ground, bales of straw held in place with stakes or glacial stones piled into a drainage path.

When new developments are built, it is essential that water retention ponds are included in the development. If they are not, existing downstream property owners can be forced out of their homes by flooding, which had not been a problem, at a great economic cost to them and taxpayers.

While installing ponds can help retain water on the land, they introduce management issues, which, in turn, can devastate native species. Since they, too, collect chemicals from farm runoff, they are prone to algae blooms and fish dieoff. Recently, people have used grass carp to control weed growth in small ponds.

Using nonnative fish to control weed growth raises the issue of invasive fish species. When ponds are built in a flood plain or created by damming a small stream, heavy spring floods can allow the fish to escape and breed, replacing native fish species.

The challenge is great, but essential, as this is the only planet we have, and we must reduce our adverse impacts on it. A group protecting the Fox River is using water willows to improve native fish habitat. Restoring native plant populations, particularly prairies and wetlands containing grasses, sedges, rushes and forbs, can protect stream banks from erosion and improve water quality in the Rock River watershed.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the May 4-10, 2011 issue

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