A Ripple Effect For Regional Water Quality

Everything big starts small – and you never know how a simple conversation might change the world!

The DuPage River Salt Creek Workgroup (DRSCW), staffed by The Conservation Foundation, started with a conversation amongst three people in 2004, and that conservation rippled out into to cutting edge water quality work that has had a dramatic impact on our region and become a national model for managing and improving water resources.  Here’s how it all came to be!

In 1972 the Clean Water Act (CWA) passed into law with the goal of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.  To accomplish this goal, the CWA established specific water quality standards to which our local rivers are held, and also made money available for the nationwide construction of wastewater treatment plants. The CWA gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulatory power over those plants, as well as over pollution into waters of the state.

In 2004, The Illinois EPA (IEPA) was finishing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study of pollutants in the DuPage River and Salt Creek. A TMDL is the maximum amount of a pollutant that can enter a waterbody without putting that waterbody in violation of water quality standards. When current pollution levels exceed the TMDL target, reduction goals and allocations for dischargers are included. TMDLs are important because for many pollutants, given the level of urban development in the region, it is simply not possible to reach a discharge of zero. When the TMDLs were published, the DuPage River and Salt Creek were in exceedance of water quality standards, and reductions were assigned. However, as people looked a little closer at the TMDL, there were serious concerns regarding the data and assumptions used in the study.

Alex Handel, Environmental Scientist at The Conservation Foundation leads a team of interns collecting water quality data for the summer bioassessment on Salt Creek (2021)

Also of relevance is how the IEPA determines if a river is in compliance. In general, if a river meets a threshold of fish and aquatic insect biodiversity, then the river is deemed “in compliance.” The idea is that if the river can support adequate life, especially if it includes life that is sensitive to pollution, then the river is healthy. Conversely, if it isn’t supporting life something is wrong. If the river doesn’t support life based on the fish and insect surveys it gets put on the 303D list (EPA’s list of impaired waters), and the reason is attributed to water chemistry samples. The water chemistry samples examine nutrients, metals, organic compounds, and other pollutants and if they are detected, then that is assumed to be the cause. The IEPA then looks at the sources of those pollutants and who they can regulate to clean it up. The problem here is that there are other causes of biodiversity loss than just pollutants.

At this point nobody was arguing whether or not the DuPage River and Salt Creek were impaired; data clearly showed they were. But the causes and sources were much more debatable. In prescribing solutions, the IEPA doesn’t usually consider factors beyond detected pollutants, such as physical habitat., and not all pollutants affect aquatic life equally. Since the IEPA only has the authority to regulate a subset of pollutants, those are the ones that are put into TMDLs regardless of if they are the most important factors impacting aquatic life or not.

The goal of the first major TMDL was to improve Dissolved Oxygen (DO) by controlling ammonia and Carbonaceous Biological Oxygen Demand (CBOD).  Some quick definitions: DO is oxygen gas absorbed by water and is what fish use to breathe. It is essential to have the correct concentration of DO to maintain aquatic life.  CBOD is a measure of how much DO in the river is consumed by decomposition. It is also used as a measure of the effectiveness of wastewater treatment processes. In order to meet the TMDL’s DO goals, upgrades to area wastewater treatment plants were recommended to remove ammonia and CBOD. This upgrade was estimated to cost over $200 million dollars in capital costs and an additional $7 million per year in operation costs (2019). That bill would have been passed on via user rates or taxes to those using the wastewater systems.

Due to the methodological flaws with the TMDL study there were concerns that these expensive upgrades would ultimately not help DO or Aquatic Life. Not even IEPA could say it would actually deliver improvements and if it didn’t improve, the only regulatory tool would be further plant upgrades. Facing that prospect, a group of individuals including Stephen McCracken, a staff member of The Conservation Foundation and a few treatment plant managers started meeting to discuss how else these issues may be resolved, and with a bit more certainty in the results, put together a proposal for the state where instead of spending gratuitous amounts of money on highly uncertain TMDL recommendations, they would instead defer implementing the recommendations for several years and conduct their own monitoring and modelling to better understand the DO issue, and determine the true causes of aquatic life impairment.

This group became known as the DuPage River Salt Creek Workgroup (DRSCW), and in 2006 became an official 501-C(3) non-profit organization with the following goal: “to bring together a diverse coalition of stakeholders to preserve and enhance water quality and stream resource quality in the East Branch DuPage River, West Branch DuPage River, Salt Creek, and their tributaries.” To reach this goal, the DRSCW is organized to implement rigorous analysis and targeted projects and programs that cost effectively work towards the goals of the CWA. To perform this task, they set out to better determine the stressors to local aquatic ecosystems via a long-term water quality monitoring program. The DRSCW uses a measure – plan – implement – measure approach; they monitor rivers to assess the causes of impairments, plan a project that will address the issues, implement the project, and then conduct post project monitoring to determine if the project was successful, how successful, and if more work needs to be done.

In the time the DRSCW has been around, substantial gains have been made in our rivers and several projects have been identified and completed with promising results.

  • More detailed monitoring and modeling of DO showed that even the total elimination of ammonia and BOD from wastewater would not resolve the DO issue. The principle low DO areas in the rivers were associated with dams and not with treatment plant discharges.   On the basis of this research the DRSCW signed an alternative implementation plan with the State, saving area tax payers money and better targeting public resources.
  • Development of a watershed model that identifies and ranks the variables impacting aquatic life. This model was fundamental in 2015 when the DRSCW was able to negotiate an agreement with regulators away from costly plant upgrades with small benefits to a locally developed plan with cheaper, certain benefits.
  • The river restoration at the Preserve at Oak Meadows was completed in 2017 and featured the removal of a low head dam, streambank stabilization, native wetland plantings, and in-stream habitat construction. This project resulted in improving aquatic life and water quality, reduced widespread flooding on the property, and turned a community liability into an environmental asset. This project has been the recipient of several restoration awards.

    Construction at Oak Meadows Restoration: Looking south from the upstream end of the project prior to flow being reintroduced to the engineered channel. The restored river channel is on the left with exposed gravel runs/beds and graded stream banks still under construction.
  • The Spring Brook Restoration in the Blackwell Forest Preserve was completed in 2020 and included removal of a low head dam, reconstruction of the stream with meanders, benthic substrate, and streambank stabilization. It reconnected the river to the floodplain and restored native wetland habitat in the area.
  • Churchill Woods Dam Removal was completed in 2012 and featured a dam removal, stream restoration and native wetland restoration. Fish and insect diversity increased as a result of this project and dissolved oxygen levels improved upstream of the dam.

The DRSCW is also in various stages of several other ongoing projects.

  • The dam at Fullersburg Woods is scheduled to be removed this year and is expected to improve fish and insect biodiversity, and improve in-stream chemistry such as dissolved oxygen. This project is a condition of the 2004 TMDL and marks a major win for water quality conservation.
  • The Fawell Dam in the McDowell Grove Forest Preserve will have a custom designed fish ladder installed to improve fish biodiversity upstream of the dam. While this won’t have the same dramatic habitat improvement as other removal projects, the function of the dam as a major flood control structure makes removal infeasible.
  • In collaboration with the Chicago Area Waterways group, the Salt Smart Initiative, and DuPage County, the DRSCW has been working to reduce chloride pollution in our waterways while maintaining public safety.
  • The DRSCW is designing a stream restoration project for the Lower East Branch DuPage River near Whalon Lake. The project will feature a river restoration with reconstructed river channel and native riparian plantings.

The DRSCW primarily consists of local government agencies, wastewater treatment plants and sanitary districts, and stormwater management groups. Additional stakeholders make up the rest of the organization and they include public works departments, municipalities, forest preserve districts, county government, and some private companies like engineering firms. All these groups represent a project area of 360 square miles, 3 watersheds, hundreds of miles of rivers and tributaries, 156 million gallons per day of effluent from 25 treatment plants, and over a million people who call it home.

While the DRSCW is a standalone entity, with its own board of directors and membership, the people that staff the organization are also staff member of The Conservation Foundation that work under contract for the DRSCW. Due to the relationships The Conservation Foundation had built with communities and wastewater treatment plant operators, they were approached by the plant operators about assisting with the formation of what is now the DRSCW. This partnership is beneficial to both groups. It allows The Conservation Foundation to expand its water protection impacts in ways that would otherwise not be possible and at virtually no cost to the organization. The Conservation Foundation’s reputation as a fair and competent partner also makes it easier for all stakeholders to negotiate in good faith on projects, and work together to determine the best possible solutions. It also allows people like me to staff not only the DRSCW but also the Lower DuPage River Watershed Coalition (LDRWC) and the Lower Des Plaines Watershed Group (LDWG) which are separate watershed groups but who perform very similar work with similar goals as the DRSCW. The Conservation Foundation and the DRSCW will continue to be leaders in local watershed protection and in time we hope to fully restore all the rivers in our watersheds so that people can safely enjoy their natural beauty and environmental richness for years to come.

Written by Alex Handel, Environmental Scientist

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