The Paradigm of a Natural Environment

Four weeks ago the Illinois Lakes Management Association (ILMA) hosted a POD in Palatine focused on common reed, aka Phragmites Australis, one of the most successful invasives to impact our lakes, streams, and wetlands in recent memory.  One of the points commonly made by the presenter is how we have basically created the perfect environment for this species to proliferate.*  This serves a a good lead into discussing how we have molded the urban environment to our will.  The result appears to be a more desirable and livable environment full of tolerable nuisances to mankind while creating a mixed bag of consequential side effects to the natural ecology of the landscape and its native inhabitants.

*Note: This presentation is now available in the Media Center of this Blog.

We often hear our folks talk about the good old days.  Many of us can probably remember our grandparents telling us about the days before that.  Those who have been fortunate can probably remember a few walks down memory lane with great grandparents.  Someday you will tell your children and perhaps grandchildren the same cyclic diatribe, and on and on.  To people “the good ole days” are something very particular.  Cheap gas, less restriction…less distraction perhaps.  Less running around and perhaps a less hurried world.

What if our waters could remember “the good ole days”?  Our waters (lakes, streams, creeks, tributaries, etc) are a reflection of our watershed landscapes.  What if they could realize a time prior to man’s intervention, or a time when we can properly work with nature instead of always against it.  We’ve come a long way in understanding the world and the environment we live in, yet the trek back towards environmental solvency is long and difficult.  The science is getting better but the willpower to enable science to do what is necessary is the harder part of the math.

Along this pathway we also run into an issue of public perception.  Everyone has a built-in perception of what human domain looks like.  This includes our neighborhoods, villages, shopping centers, and transportation corridors.  What’s generally clear is that it is very rarely in step with the natural environment.  We have devastated our shorelines with seawall and piers to access our lakes.  We have bent and channelized our streams and creeks to recover property while filling the overbank floodplains.  Our wetlands are primarily gone.  No first generation forests exist anymore.  Second generation forests are a rarity.  The original inhabitants are…somewhere else.

Our ancestors talk about the clean waters and big fish but they were the first to encroach upon nature and the bill has come due generations later.  It will continue to do so for generations to come if we don’t start to right the ship in a cohesive manner.  Our children inherit our misgivings while we have gone about our daily lives expecting agencies such as EPA, DNR, USACE, and our local governing stormwater agencies and municipalities to do the heavy lifting for us.  The policies needed are still only scratching the surface.

Yet the environment is resilient.  Regardless of the engineering effort put into action to reverse rivers, dry out wetlands, tile the water table, and bridge our creeks.  We can continue to fight it or embrace it.  Our understanding of the green technology that can be used to reduce our impervious impact on the landscape has greatly increased, but it is not standard practice and seemingly impractical to apply under many normal development ordinances and review processes which have been established to encourage legacy practices.

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Non-sewered parking lot runoff flows over grass providing a means for urban sediments to deposit over the landscape instead of into the sewer.

If we can agree that the state of our water resources are a reflection of the watershed that drains to them, then we should be able to draw the conclusion that we need to reconsider how we treat the land on which we dwell and that there are consequences from our current land use practices.  Treating runoff like an unwanted resource in one location only to expect it to be in pristine condition when it reaches its final destination is unrealistic.  In an unaltered environment the above scenario may have been possible; however at one time the only impervious surfaces on the earth were exposed stone, water, and ice.

Standard engineering practice is to efficiently route water away through a conduit, getting it away from us as quickly as possible to the nearest creek, lake or pond.  The method in which the water reaches its destination is by no means anything like it originally functioned, heated from the asphalt and escorted like a shotgun blast several times faster.  Our stormwater ponds are a poor reflection of anything natural, often mowed turn grass down to the waters edge.  An environment we created to incubate misquitos which we will complain about incessantly even though we cannot live with the “weedy look” which helps harbor the natural predators needed to curb the nuisance species.  We’ve harbored the perfect environment for many of these invasive species by bringing them to locations without predation that we cannot rid ourselves of them.

So where does this leave us?  Institutional inability to implement science into policy it would seem, but unlike global warming, there is little debate to the science.  After all everything is driven by erosion, or the process of the movement of sediment from one place to another.  This process is 100% a natural condition.  The only difference is the acceleration of the impact due to human intervention.

It’s probably a bit atypical for the common citizen to ask “Why must roads be impervious?”  Yet it may not be atypical for the common citizen lake property owner to ask the question “Why is there so much algae in the lake?”  at first the two seem worlds apart but in really they interconnected through the dynamics of the watershed.  After all the road system helps connect the great conduits of our stormwater delivery system, of which the final chapter is written in out lakes and streams.

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The sign does not lie.  The fish await our runoff.

So how does this story end?  Out of sight out of mind will not cut it, but until stormwater regulations make water quality a focus, improvements to water quality will remain a challenge.  How do our waters become “impaired”?  How did we get here?  What’s being done about it?  Discussion of impairments can be found on an earlier blog post from August 2016 and subsequent presentation.

There will be a dedicated session in this year’s Annual ILMA Conference regarding the impact of storwmater and runoff on our lakes.  Cleaning up our storwmater, especially in our urban districts is essential to helping solve impairment issues.  Much of the technology and scientific principles are in place to make for a more naturalized urban environment.  It all comes down to people’s willingness to make the changes in their everyday lives.  These changes come down to cosmetic changes, not physical changes.  Using natural overland drainage patterns instead of storm sewer.  Making parking lots porous instead of solid impervious concrete or asphalt.  Minimizing thermal pollution by harvesting rainwater instead of sending it to small, shallow stormwater facilities or directly to our creeks.

The paradigm of a natural environment does not insinuate and alteration on modern living.  In fact it is quite the opposite.  Implementing green technology, while retro in concept has been forgotten because as consumers we have been shown to crave man made revisions to the landscape.  Our carbon footprint cumulatively within the watershed amounts to a large amount of large pulse of unwanted constituents that simply were not present 200+ years ago.

“Nature did it right” is an easy way to look at things.  Our lakes, streams, and surrounding watersheds form from thousands of years of pre-human intervention and that is the course correction we need in order to turn back the clock to the good ole days for our lakes and streams.

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