Never Miss the Water

“You never miss the water ‘til the well runs dry.” – Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials

Water is one of those things that seems like it’s everywhere. Until it’s not. Then it may be too late.

Water belongs to none of us and yet belongs to all of us. If the water dries up, it dries up for all of us. If the well is poisoned, it’s poisoned for all of us.

Several recent news items make this point rather well, I thought.

It seems that over in Urbana-Champaign, the Sanitary District (UCSD) has agreed to divert and sell off their treated wastewater (effluent) for at least $2 million per year. Sounds like a real deal, right? Selling someone your sewage! How great is that?

Except that it’s treated sewage, which means that the UCSD went to a lot of trouble to clean it up and make it suitable for local streams, which depend on this water for their flow. Especially in drier seasons of the year. And as it turns out, this treated effluent is of tremendous importance to the health of these streams that form the headwaters of the Salt Fork and Embarrass Rivers.

And all parties have supposedly done their due diligence to protect “minimum” stream flow in contract negotiations with Chronus Chemicals. Chronus is the one purchasing the 6.3 million gallons per day of this “effluent” to cool equipment at a proposed (not yet built) $1.4 billion anhydrous ammonia plant down in Tuscola.

But the guarantees are weak and overly flexible, with deference going to the needs of the Chronus plant, not the streams, according to attorneys at Prairie Rivers Network, which has been following this case closely.

So we’ll see. As the blues song says, we won’t miss the water ‘til the creeks run dry.

And then we go down to the Salt Fork River in southeast Champaign County, where Sunrise Coal’s Bulldog Mine is still charging ahead while awaiting permitting and securing property leases and easements from area landowners. Yet major questions remain surrounding the impact of the proposed coal mine on the Salt Fork River, on groundwater and many other issues, such as concern about mine “tailings” that are left on the land after mining and the water used to wash the mined coal. Many of these will only play out in time.

But to get an idea about how these issues could play out, we have to look no further than two other very nearby examples.

One is on the Middle Fork River, the state’s only State Scenic River and a National Scenic River also. This week, we have been reading how just upstream from Kickapoo State Park on the Middle Fork, the Dynegy Energy plant shut down a coal-fired electrical generating plant in 2011. Over 60 years, this plant generated over 3 million cubic yards of highly toxic coal ash which contains high levels of arsenic, zinc and lead. This is stored in impoundments, basically man-made ponds at the site. Turns out – oops – they made these coal ash impoundments a little too close to the Middle Fork River.

They apparently put a small dike between the pits and the river and all, but still, now only a few years later, there is toxic leakage from the coal ash pits into area groundwater and even into the Middle Fork as well.  And worse, the River, behaving like rivers will, is apparently slowly moving itself even closer to the toxic ash pits with little that engineers can do to stop it.

Dynegy wants to seal and cap the pits, but others argue that the only safe storage method is to remove the toxic coal ash from the River’s flood plain altogether, something Dynegy does not currently want to spend the money to do. Can we blame them? Can we not?

The other example we also read about just this week.  Over in Clinton, we heard from intrepid area legislator Chapin Rose (R- Mahomet) that the Illinois EPA has found dichloroethene (DCT) and trichloroethene (TCT) in groundwater surrounding landfill sites owned and operated by Peoria Waste Disposal. Oops. And Rose reports that this important fact had gone unreported to the Federal EPA.

This is particularly disturbing in light of the fact that the Feds are considering Peoria Waste Disposal’s application to store highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from Chicago at their Clinton Landfill site. And as many of us are keenly aware, they want to store these PCBs right over top of the Mahomet Aquifer – the sole source of drinking water for about 750,000 people who live in this area.

Peoria Waste Disposal “promises” their liners, which would be the only thing keeping the PCBs from potentially poisoning the entire Mahomet Aquifer, would be “impenetrable for hundreds of years” (no comment on what happens to water supplies when “hundreds” of years pass and the PCBs still retain their toxicity, but we’ll let that one go, for now).

Unfortunately, like the Dynegy site on the Middle Fork, there is no real good and easy solution for what happens when – oops – they happen to have been wrong.

We never miss the water ‘til the well is poisoned.

But happily, none of these issues are right here on our Sangamon.

But that does not mean they may not be. Within just a few miles of here, we have two sewage treatment plants (Mahomet and Sangamon Valley) contributing treated effluent into the Sangamon River. We also have two large gravel pit operations in very close proximity to the river.

We can be proud that, to the best of our knowledge, these are maintaining high standards of compliance to all regulations and they are doing what they can to be good stewards of our water and our Sangamon River. And Sangamon River water monitoring by the USRC has verified that the Sangamon maintains a very high water quality overall.

So the Sangamon is actually not in the news. And given the nature of some of the area news lately, we can be thankful for that. But we all should be ever conscious about the quality of our area water and of our rivers and our streams. Our water belongs to all of us and to none of us, and we should never take our water for granted.

Or else, as Lil’ Ed knows, you’re going to miss that water when the well runs dry.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, April 20, 2014, by Scott Hays

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