November 8, 2003
The State of the Fox River Report was put together by the Friends of the Fox River, with a supporting article on the state of our Illinois’ rivers by Prairie Rivers Network.
The state of Illinois’ rivers by Prairie Rivers Network
Illinois has a rich heritage that is intrinsically linked to the 87,000 miles of streams that border and cross our prairie landscape. Culturally and historically, we are bound to “thy waters gently flowing.” We also have an outstanding biologically diverse heritage — a great number of species of fish, mussels, insects, amphibians, and reptiles that are dependent on these ribbons of life. Rivers and streams define a quality of life in Illinois, and can define our growth and economic future.
A recent survey found that protecting water quality was the highest ranking issue among Illinois residents out a list of 10 community issues. Survey respondents also agreed overwhelmingly that “economic prosperity depends on a healthy environment,” that “stronger protection is needed” for water quality, and more protection is needed for wildlife habitat along streams. Residents are aware of their drinking water source and the threats to water quality, and a large majority of the population — 7.7 million residents — rely on surface water. Important too, is that wildlife-related recreation in Illinois generates significant economic inputs — $4.3 billion dollars in the 2001 alone.
Many state and watershed-based organizations have been working together to protect and restore rivers — Prairie Rivers Network, Sierra Club, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Illinois Environmental Council, Audubon, Illinois Smallmouth Alliance, Illinois Paddling Council, and of course, Friends of the Fox River, and other watershed-based groups. And river conservationists know that we are at a critical point in our history — our efforts to save the remaining rivers and their streamside lands will determine whether future generations of residents, visitors, and schoolchildren will personally experience our rich natural heritage.
There is a great deal to focus our attention and energy upon to protect our rivers. The largest threat overall comes from how we use our land, as these land use activities impact water quality, habitat, wildlife, and stream flows. Unsound urban development, associated sewage discharges, household septic systems, wetlands destruction, and urban stormwater runoff have great and growing potential to impact streams.
Additionally, agricultural stormwater runoff, carrying nutrients and chemicals, confined animal feedlot operations, channelization, clearcutting and other river alterations can significantly alter stream quality and habitat. Many of these additional sources are unregulated, or are just coming under the scrutiny of the public.
Unregulated pollutants and loopholes in present water quality regulations also impact our rivers and streams. Too many nutrients and the linked problem of low dissolved oxygen in water are the number one and number two cause of water quality impairments according to Illinois EPA. There are currently no limits to nutrients in rivers, and there are many problems with how state agencies monitor oxygen levels in rivers.
Illinois EPA is presently monitoring only 15,000 of the 87,000 miles of streams in Illinois. Of these 15,000 stream miles, approximately 5,500 miles of streams are not fully supporting aquatic life and suffering from impairment. Under the Clean Water Act, each river should receive a water quality restoration plan (or TMDL). Illinois is slow to develop and adequately implement these plans.
The river conservation movement’s greatest strength is its people. There are many opportunities for people to engage in the democratic expression of our deeply-held values of conservation, stewardship, and preservation, and many ways we can protect rivers and streams. In the year ahead, river conservationists should advocate for policies that express these values, educate and connect people to our rivers, and create new river advocates.
Learning about the enforcement of the Clean Water Act, and other tools, can be a first step. Citizen monitoring efforts can bring better understanding of conditions and this involvement can improve the enforcement of water pollution control permits and other Clean Water Act programs. Citizens can work on new programs, like municipal and construction stormwater permits, and discover oft-neglected programs, like the wetlands and waterways dredge and fill permit program. We can also work on new initiatives to create better tools to protect water quality and streamside lands.
And in the best way to educate others about the richness of Illinois’ rivers and streams, we can personally show new individuals how beautiful our rivers and streams, and their wildlife truly are.