Letting it all soak In: Nature’s role in protecting water resources
Last week, on a cold and blustery Chicago day, more than a hundred people braved the elements to attend the first MPC and Openlands roundtable of the year, "Letting It All Soak In: Nature’s Role in Protecting Water Resources." One might be forgiven for thinking the topic somewhat unwinter—the relationship between rain, open space, wetlands, waterways, and our drinking water supplies—but as we brace for the impact of a major winter storm, bear in mind that all of that snow is just frozen stormwater. Some will evaporate, but much of it will melt, run off of impervious surfaces, and struggle to find a place to go other than a sewer pipes. At the same time, as we make sure are streets are salty, sandy and safe, all of that will eventually run off too, often into a stream or wetland, with deleterious consequences. Just because it's cold doesn't mean the water cycle stops.
Jerry Adelmann, President and CEO of Openlands, set the stage with a reminder that discussions of water resource management must not overlook "nature, critters, and plants" and that their survival is directly tied to the choices we humans make when we actively alter and more passively interact with the ecosystems in which we live, work and recreate. Water quality and water levels have immense impacts on the sustained health of fragile ecosystems like the Lockport Prairie, and long-term viability of those environments is directly related to mow much water we consume, the degree to which we clean our wastewater (not to mention where we put it), and how we manage our only truly free water—rain. "To sustain these critical, fragile habitats, we have to find better ways to keep rain where it falls by reducing impervious surfaces and increasing natural infiltration," said Adelmann, before stressing that reduced stormwater runoff can also reduce the economic costs (e.g. flooding, street repairs, after-the-fact environmental remediation, water treatment) faced by all of us. Remember, rain is free, stormwater is expensive.
The connection between protection and restoration of open spaces, wetlands, and urban green space with improved water quality and stormwater management permeated all of the subsequent presentations. "Rivers are like nature's circulatory system, but wetlands are the kidneys," Dr. Jeff Walk, Director of Science at the Nature Conservancy in Illinois. "Stormwater runoff, as well as the increased frequency of major storms due to climate change, is really straining those systems. If we allow our stream banks to erode, and if constantly run contaminated stormwater off into waterways and wetlands, rather than let it soak slowly into the ground, it's akin to letting ourselves have high blood pressure, an erratic heartbeat, and too much cholesterol."
Jeff Mengler, a Botanist/Wetland Ecologist and Senior Project Scientist at Cardno ENTRIX, followed that up with local examples of the interplay between groundwater supplies, species and ecosystem health, and development practices. "Indicator species like the Hine's emerald dragonfly serve as our canaries in the coal mine, they let us know when the system is contaminated or impaired. In the case of Romeoville, both the town's water supply and the Hine's emerald dragonfly depend on water from the same shallow dolomite aquifer. If the dragonfly is suffering, you can bet the municipal water supplies are too. Romeoville has really embraced the Hine's emerald dragonfly as a symbol of both water conservation and environmental stewardship."
Dominic Kempson, a Senior Scientist at Stantec, gave a detailed account of efforts to protect and restore Lockport Prairie, which sits atop that same dolomite aquifer and adjacent to the Des Plaines River and Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Reductions in groundwater recharge, along with infiltration from the river and canal, have the potential to imperil the dolomite aquifer's water quality and levels, and that in turns challenges the long-term viability of the prairie above. Having assessed the threat and determined that groundwater management would be the primary determinant of success, such groups as Openlands, the Forest Preserve of Will County, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, local municipalities, and a host of others, rallied to identify land for long-term conservation, remove or repair drain tiles, and address local stormwater runoff.
Ed Collins, Natural Resource Manager for the McHenry County Conservation District and the roundtable's final speaker, explained the fundamental and philosophical differences between restoring water-rich environments and other ecosystems. hat belief is borne out in the work to revive Nippersink Creek and and the thousands of acres that make up its watershed. Once channelized to speed the runoff of agricultural chemicals and sediment, the McHenry County Conservation District opted to renaturalize it, "using the same equipment—bulldozers and backhoes—that had previously destroyed natural wetlands." It's just one of the success stories that makes metropolitan Chicago a national leader in restoration techniques and philosophy. "Of course, renaturalizing the creek also awakened it from a 50-year coma. The banks have moved, the land has shifted, and the water has taken charge. Water moves, inspires, and lives. The practical benefits are very real though. Downstream communities have reported less severe flooding. Species diversity increased. Perched peat on adjacent hillsides had been dry for years, and now seeps water continually... all these speak to the benefits for our groundwater and surface water supplies from restoring fragile ecosystems."
"Letting It All Soak In," sponsored by ComEd and supported by Hannah's Bretzel, was the first of several MPC and Openlands water-focused roundtables this year, and it set a rousing tone for the work ahead. Water resource management requires more than getting water rates right and fixing pipes on schedule, it requires a realization that our species isn't the only one that needs the water, and that the ecosystems we interact with and alter can take of our us if we take care of them.