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Coping with erratic weather

April 24, 2013

Vogl farm field: This lake was a corn field last year. (Photo by Lin Vogl)

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

In a recent article, we shared the views of agriculture experts who were anticipating a less intense continuation of last year’s drought, based on historic trends.

The recent heavy rains have saturated the ground, washed substantial amounts of soil from the fields and led to large-scale flooding, which is preventing farmers from working their fields. Depending on future weather conditions, the anticipated bumper crops of corn and beans may not materialize this year.

Driving during the heavy rains provided a dramatic visual example of how soil carrying water rushes off the barren farm lands, into streams and eventually into the Rock River. Added to the surface flows is water trying to exit from tile lines buried in the ground to remove excess water from farm soil. Such soil losses could be lessened if cover crops were used.

Paved surfaces and building roofs stretching across the landscape are also designed to get the water to drain off into local streams and into major rivers. Added to it are water from every community underlain with storm sewers and home owners with functioning sump pumps.

Prior to development, high-water levels stayed widely scattered across the land and accumulated in low areas known as wetlands. With extensive drainage systems, water is collected and designed to leave the area as quickly as possible, producing intense periods of flooding and leaving less water in the soil to lessen the intensity of droughts.

Those whose properties are flooded pressure dam owners to open the floodgates to protect their property with little concern of how a water release would adversely affect the properties of those downstream.

The problem is that the water has to go somewhere. Chicago developed an underground storage system known as the deep tunnel to handle its periods of huge water volumes. The tunnel is more than 100 miles long and as deep as 350 feet and cost more than $4 billion with most of the money coming from the federal government. It limits flooding and reduces the amount of polluted water reaching Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. As the flood passes, the water is pumped back up to be treated in sewage treatment plants. In the future, the collected water could be recycled.

Yet, even with this large, sophisticated engineering project, the recent storm temporarily closed major expressways, roads and schools in the metropolitan area.

Surface solutions such as holding ponds, bioswales, restored wetlands, cover crops, preventing building on flood plains, requiring new developments to include water retention strategies, green roofs and permeable streets and walkways provide some storage capacity. Near Viola, Wis., we visited a unique farm where the owner abandoned row crop farming and re-engineered the land to retain the water on the hilltops. He planted strips of nut and fruit trees and berries following the contours of the land, leaving 10-foot-wide grassy areas between the plantings. He releases hogs, sheep and chickens to graze on the land, and harvests the nuts and berries for market.

In our world of costly oil, climate change, erratic weather and economic austerity, retaining more storm water in our local communities would prove beneficial.

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 April 24-30, 2013, issue

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