Celebrating success, standing up to threats on waterways

A float trip on a river highlights what's right (bald eagles! otters!) and wrong (coal ash, manure) on our waterways.
April 27, 2017

The author's spouse, Karen Carney, enjoys a summer paddle on the Salt Fork River in Vermilion County.

Rob Kanter

If you were to launch a canoe in the Boneyard Creek on the University of Illinois campus and head downstream until you hit the Gulf of Mexico, you would travel roughly 1,400 miles on the water. From the Boneyard, you would take the Saline Branch to the Salt Fork and then float on into the main stem of the Vermilion River, which would lead you to the Mississippi by way of the Wabash, and the Ohio. This might be a difficult trip to undertake, but it’s easy to imagine because the connections among waterways are so definite.

Along the way, you would share the water with some wild animals whose populations have rebounded in recent years, thanks to good regulations and changes in human behavior. Among them might be charismatic creatures like bald eagles and river otters. But you would also be sharing the water with creatures most people overlook--fish like big-eyed chubs, which were found in the Saline Branch a few years ago, after a century-long absence, or clubshell mussels, one of two federally endangered species of mussels lately reintroduced in the Middle Fork and Salt Fork.

Sadly, attention to waterways also reminds us that old environmental threats persist, and new ones continue to arise.

In Champaign, for example, residents in the neighborhood of Fifth and Hill are still wondering about contamination of the soil and the streambed where a clay pipe once discharged waste from a manufactured gas plant directly into the Boneyard Creek. Currently, they are especially interested in environmental testing of soil around the site in advance of work that would disturb it.

In Vermilion County, another dirty legacy of fossil fuel—coal ash—continues to threaten the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, the only river in Illinois that’s included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The coal ash, which is stored in pits next to the river just north of Kickapoo State Park, was produced by the now-shuttered Dynegy power plant and contains toxic substances like mercury, arsenic, selenium, cadmium and chromium.

Not far from this old abuse, new environmental threats are being added in the form of two enormous hog factories located near Fithian on Stony Creek, a jewel of a tributary to the Salt Fork River. If all goes according to plan, the manure from the 16,000-plus animals kept in these buildings will be stored in pits beneath them for up to a year, before it’s used as fertilizer on fields in the area.

What could go wrong? The accidental discharge of liquid cattle waste into Stony Creek in September 2015 provides a glimpse. That killed fish in about ten miles of waterway, and left residents of Oakwood, whose drinking water comes from the Salt Fork River, feeling a little queasy.

In the aggregate, threats like these to our rivers and streams can seem overwhelming. But we know that when people come together and focus their attention they can effect meaningful change.

You may want to start this week at the 12th annual Boneyard Creek Community Day. There, you can pick up litter, restore native vegetation to shorelines, or install storm drain awareness medallions at sites throughout Champaign-Urbana and on the University of Illinois campus. Beyond that, though, check out the group Eco-Justice Collaborative, which has recently taken up the cause of protecting the Middle Fork, and (of course) check in with Prairie Rivers Network, which is currently celebrating its 50th year of advocating for clean water in Illinois.

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