Keep Illinois’ Waterways Clean

August 21, 2019

To the naked eye, the Illinois River is healthier than it was 50 years ago. Thanks to the Clean Water Act of 1972, much industrial and sewage waste has been cleaned up.

And yet, as a key Midwest waterway, it’s a work in progress that impacts human and marine life all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, where pollutants have created a large “dead zone” where few organisms can survive. This ongoing effort is one environmental effort of note during National Water Quality Month.

“The average person looks at clearer water and thinks it’s good, but in reality, clear water might indicate high levels of harmful invasive animals or low nutrients,” said Bradley biology professor Jennifer Jost. “This isn’t always a positive change for the system.”

Jost’s observation comes from nine years studying zebra mussels at Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area, located downriver from Peoria. The Illinois River is teeming with the invasive species, which hitched a ride on international ships from eastern Europe in the early 1990s. The mussels thrive in water with few predators, plenty of food and comfortable water temperatures. However, they feed on algae and plankton — the foundation of the aquatic food chain. Their filtration feeding appears to cleanse the water, but it depletes the oxygen and food supply for other aquatic life.

In addition, the Illinois River, like other waters, faces occasional large algae blooms. Algae temporarily closed beaches along the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast earlier this year, and blooms have become a common concern in Lake Erie.

While the river is a vital food source to aquatic ecosystems, nutrient runoff from fertilizers and pesticides can cause excessive algae growth. When there is more algae than aquatic species can eat, the algae dies and sinks to the river bottom, where it’s broken down by bacteria and turned into sludge. This process sucks oxygen from the water and creates sludge, which, combined with runoff silt, decreases river channel depth. In addition, algae can cause rashes, hives, diarrhea and vomiting in humans.

“Algae by itself is good,” said biology professor John Marino.” But too much of a good thing leads to bad things.”

Though environmental issues may seem complex, simple actions can make a difference to the local environment. Here are a few ways people can help:

  • Watch the drain: Cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, motor oil, and even laundry and dish detergent can be toxic to aquatic systems. Those materials should never be discarded down the toilet, or in the case of oil, storm drains.
  • Guard your green thumb: Use environmentally safe fertilizers and pesticides on your lawn. Also limit how much of the chemicals you use.
  • Don’t litter, critter: Throw garbage into appropriate receptacles, not into drains or waterways where it will land in a lake or river.
  • Become a locavore: The more you buy locally, the less you rely on global supply chains to deliver your food and goods. That means fewer carbon emissions from transports, less materials falling off ocean vessels into the water and decreased chances for invasive species to hitch a ride on a ship, plane or train.
  • Get your hands dirty: Organizations like The Nature Conservancy rely on volunteers to help the environment. Find a group that addresses issues important to you and make your mark.

“I think the idea of not leaving a trace is important,” Jost said. “Unfortunately, people aren’t adhering to that. They often treat the Banner Marsh shoreline as a dumping ground for fishing lines and supplies.”

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