As a child, I would often find myself staring at the name on the front of the barn on my family’s farm. At some time, I reasoned, someone must have painted over an E at the end of the name and never bothered to replace it. I repeatedly quizzed my parents, “What
happened to the E?” Their answer was always the same, “There wasn’t one.” I thought they were playing a joke on me.
Years later I learned the joke wasn’t just on me, it was on everyone in East Central Illinois. My family’s farm wasn’t named for distant relatives named Broadmoore, it was named for the land itself, the broad moor. Born from prairie wetlands, East Central Illinois’ relationship with water has rarely been a concern of too little, but rather too much. Those who complain about the area’s lack of forests and hills, would do well to look at what the glaciers left in the bargain. Acres of ancient buried rivers have provided water for generations; rarely does one dig more than six feet to find water. Yes, California and Colorado have mountains, but they also have the graves of farmers and ranchers who died fighting over water to irrigate their crops and feed their livestock. This legacy continues in Arizona today, where houses are falling into cracks created by aquifers that are being pumped out faster than they can recharge. With lengthy droughts reappearing in parts of the U.S. in the last decade, we have to wonder how long our liquid treasure will last in the face of global warming and population growth. Will there be enough safe water or are we
destined to become a Mitsubishi desert?
Like most of the farmland in East Central Illinois, Broadmoor exists because of an extensive system of drainage tiles and ditches which shuttle rain to small streams and rivers, and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. At times, this system is overly efficient and
shuttles not only rain water, but topsoil washed from fields unprotected by crops or mulch. This churning sluice gouges deep ruts through pastures and fields.
The resulting in the sedimentation makes lakes and rivers less navigable and less liveable for the native species of fish whose food sources can’t survive the resulting turbid conditions. This problem has been exacerbated by the conversion of flood plains to farmland. Without buffers to catch it, the sediment has no place to go but the rivers. Unfortunately, dredging rivers and lakes to remove wayward topsoil provides a temporary
solution at best.
Field runoff and the shallow groundwater of our area both carry another form of residue – pesticides and fertilizers. For years, debate raged over just how much fertilizer pollution from Illinois agriculture contributed to the destruction of fishing areas in the Gulf of Mexico. Agricultural lobbying organizations and fertilizer industry representatives
maintained that little of the 2 billion pounds of nitrogen annually applied to Illinois farms reached the Gulf. Further, the chief of the Illinois State Water Survey argued in a controversial research paper that historical levels of nitrogen entering our waterways from decaying prairie plants and buffalo feces were underestimated and current nitrate levels were comparatively better than they appeared. However, experiments using fertilizers with tracer elements have proven beyond doubt the culpability of Illinois agriculture in the Gulf ’s “dead zone.” Perhaps as University of Illinois professor of biogeochemistry Mark David contends, Illinois should regulate fertilizer as was proposed by the state’s
pollution control board in 1971. Though state agencies opted not to revisit this issue in the nearly three decades that followed, today they not only have to look at, but implement, ways to reduce Illinois’ contribution to Gulf hypoxia under the mandate of a 1998 federal act.
The costs of fertilizer contamination aren’t being borne solely by far-off fishermen. Closer to home, many Illinois drinking water sources routinely exceed standards for nitrates, such as Bloomington, Danville, Decatur, and Georgetown. All primarily rely on surface reservoirs susceptible to field runoff. When nitrate levels exceed federal standards, water
suppliers must provide bottled water for infants, as well as pregnant and nursing mothers. To remedy the situation, Decatur is spending $6.7 million to construct a nitrate removal facility for its water supply; Georgetown and Danville spent $3.5 million and $6 million respectively to construct their facilities. Removing pesticides from water comes with a
price for the residents of Springfield as well. Water there must be treated with activated carbon to remove atrazine.
But these measures are not enough, contend organizations like the Environmental Working Group. For water to be considered contaminated, levels of regulated water contaminants must average in excess of federal levels on the basis of four quarterly measurements. A herbicide violation in spring coinciding with farm pesticide applications could get factored out when averaged with several lower readings from the rest of the year when pesticides aren’t applied. Additionally, not all pesticides used to grow food
are federally regulated in drinking water.
Further, the regulatory status of some pesticides and other chemicals previously recognized as carcinogenic has been changing. In 1998, the Illinois Environmental
Protection Agency took a bold step and, in doing so, created a model for the U.S. EPA. Using available scientific literature, IEPA began classifying substances linked to disrupting the endocrine system – the complex system of glands that secrete the hormones that regulate body functions such as reproduction, growth, and digestion, via organs like the kidneys, liver, and pancreas.
Linked substances were ranked as known, probable, and suspected carcinogens.
Since 1998, industry groups from the styrene manufacturers to Monsanto have attempted to get their products off the list or at least downgraded. At the same time, lobbying and lawsuits have interfered with and thwarted the U.S. EPA’s ability to set lower levels for arsenic and surface water chlorination by-products, such as trihalomethanes, respectively.
Although these battles grabbed headlines, one of the biggest blows to area water safety occurred this winter when the agency issued its review of atrazine, a herbicide banned as a carcinogen in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Atrazine is one of the most commonly-used herbicides in the U.S. and, by no coincidence, one of the cheapest. In a statement issued in February, the U.S. EPA stated that “endocrine disruption, or potential effects on endocrine mediated pathways, cannot be regarded as an
atrazine regulatory endpoint at this time.” The agency further claimed that appropriate testing protocols needed to be established before it could reach a conclusion regarding atrazine’s endocrine effects. In the interim, the EPA is allowing the manufacturer of atrazine, Syngenta, to monitor contamination and implement drinking water limits. If the
level of atrazine in an individual drinking water source exceeds specified levels, the EPA has given Syngenta the responsibility to conduct monitoring and develop a voluntary compliance plan among atrazine users to lower the contamination level.
Cancer is no stranger to Broadmoor.
Nearly every household within one mile of Broadmoor has been affected by cancer. In 1988, Charles Edward Barnes II or “Ed” as friends called him died at the age of 70 from surgical complications resulting from the treatment of pancreatic cancer. Ed was the third generation of his family to till the soils of Broadmoor. He was the first to use atrazine.
In the late 1990s, an elderly woman living less than a mile east of Broadmoor and a woman in her early twenties living less than a mile west of Broadmoor both developed benign tumors ranging from 19 to 20 pounds. The elderly woman had worked as a secretary at a local elementary school in addition to assisting her husband with some of the work on their farm. The woman in her twenties was not involved in farming, nor were her parents who lived at the same address. The only thing these women had in common was that they drank water from wells drilled into the same shallow aquifer.
Since 1984, Ed’s cancer and those of his neighbors have been recorded as part of the Illinois State Cancer Registry. However they will likely never be officially correlated to the substances that may have caused them. In 1984, the state legislature failed to fund the Illinois Health and Hazardous Substances Registry Act. This act was to “monitor the health effects among the citizens of Illinois related to exposures to hazardous substances in the work place and the environment.”
Closer to Bloomington, near the growing number of large-scale hog farms, residents must not only contend with pesticide and fertilizer residues in their ground water, but potentially with antibiotic resistant bacteria based on the findings of a study published in New Scientist in April, 2001. Using DNA testing, University of Illinois microbiologist Rustam Aminov and his team determined that bacteria from the soil near large-scale hog farms and the ground water reserves below these farms can acquire tetracycline-resistant genes from bacteria originating from pigs given the antibiotic as a growth promoter on these farms. This practice is banned in the European Union.
Back at Broadmoor, the pigs and the pasture are now gone. Like many rural farmsteads,
Broadmoor still has a house built at ground level with a bermed basement – a vestige of the days when builders knew better than to dig basements in swampland.
Other vestiges of the area’s wetland past can be found on the headstones of Stearns cemetery five miles away along Interstate 74 near Fithian. A walk through the old part
of the cemetery reveals that countless people died not during East Central Illinois’ frigid winters, but during its blazing summers. They died not because their drafty farmhouses couldn’t keep out the heat, but because their houses couldn’t keep out the mosquitoes. They died of malaria.
Before it was drained, Central Illinois was second only to Africa in malaria deaths, says University of Illinois medical entomologist Robert Novak.Whether the incidence of malaria will increase or already has increased due to global warming is a source of debate among entomologists. At present, many of the projection models for global warming call for climate conditions to become warmer and wetter – ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes. Novak, who serves as a World Health Organization Vector Biology and Control expert panelist, studies the effects of global warming on the mosquito populations that carry malaria, dengue fever, and St. Louis encephalitis.
According to Novak, East Central Illinois hasn’t had a case of non-imported malaria since before World War II. However, the mosquitoes that typically carry the disease are still here.Moreover, cases of malaria already appeared in New York and Louisiana. A more immediate concern is West Nile Virus. In 2002, Illinois led the nation with 900 human cases, including 66 deaths. As of mid-August, in the middle of a wide-spread education campaign to remove sources of standing water, no human cases of West Nile had been reported to Illinois health officials.
It is easy to empty bird baths and remove old tires and other sources of standing water which provide habitats for disease-carrying mosquitoes. However, it is more difficult to combat the often unaerated, man-made ponds used to replace wetlands displaced by housing and shopping developments. Despite a grand history in socalled green development a century ago, Illinois has all but abandoned the practice of using large green spaces to provide recreation and temporary water retention in and around urban areas.
PAR BUT NOT PARITY
“Most climate studies project the world’s climate to become warmer and wetter, on average,” says University of Illinois professor of environmental systems Wayland Eheart. “On average is the key to that statement. In between, we are likely to see more droughts and more floods.” More frequent droughts could cause water quality problems for communities that depend on surface sources for their drinking water. EPA-permitted discharges for industrial wastes are based upon average flows. If a drought reduces the water level in a river, then potentially toxic substances in a legal industrial discharge will be at higher concentrations. Dilution levels could be further affected if more of the state’s farmers decide to install irrigation equipment.
While Eheart says he isn’t placing a lot of stock in global warming models just yet, he is a strong advocate of the precautionary principle. “You should do whatever you are going to be satisfied with even if climate change doesn’t occur,” he says. “At present
we have no control over how much water is being withdrawn in Illinois.”
“We need policies that specifically state how much people can take and a legal framework behind it, not just voluntary reporting like we’ve done with other things,” says Eheart. “A shared system needs to be set up to allocate ground water, as well. Relying on lawsuits to allocate is very inefficient and inconsistent,” he says, noting that water battles have already occurred. “A few years ago Danville wanted to access area ground water to dilute nitrates in its drinking water. Area farmers complained that this would harm their water supplies. The farmers won.” How much the fields of Broadmoor share in the blame for this irony is unknown. What is known is that they share the same watershed.
Surface water and ground water are intrinsically connected. The giant Mahomet aquifer, which spans all or portions of Champaign, DeWitt, Ford, Iroquois, Logan, Macon, McLean, Piatt, Sangamon, Tazewell, and Vermilion counties, charges with rainfall in northern Champaign County, as well as, the Sangamon River near Allerton Park in Piatt County. As such, the cities of Champaign and Urbana supply their residents some of the youngest water in the aquifer — water only a few thousand years old.Water in other areas of the aquifer is 5,000 to 7,000 years older.
Though smaller, shallower aquifers supply water to many individuals and communities, at 4 trillion gallons, the Mahomet is regarded as the most vast and productive. Just how productive, however, isn’t fully known, explains Samuel Panno, a geochemist with the Illinois Geological Survey (ISGS), “Aquifers are renewable resources in that they can be recharged. Water that is pumped can be replaced by precipitation at a given rate.” But the Mahomet’s recharge rate is still unknown. “I think most people who know anything about the aquifer and groundwater hydrology feel it is foolhardy to continue to develop the Mahomet aquifer without knowing its approximate recharge rate,” says Panno.
According to Panno, if the aquifer is pumped too heavily in some areas, it could bring down the water level in others, possibly below the level of some communities’ pumps. This could result in water being unavailable to communities with shallower wells for extended periods of time. Just how much water can be pumped safely has yet to be determined and funding to study it is still being sought. In the meantime, development plans, such as the one in Bloomington to add another manufacturer like Mitsubishi, worry some residents in other communities.
In 1999, Panno, and ISGS researchers Keith Hackley, David Larson, and Edward Mehnert published a study of the water level of the Mahomet aquifer west of Champaign. According to Mehnert who led the study and heads ISGS’ ground water geology section, the water level in this area dropped over 40 feet between 1953 and 1995. At the same time, water use in Champaign-Urbana increased from 7 million gallons a day to an average of 21 million gallons a day,with peak usage as high as 34 million gallons.
Since 1995, the water level has stabilized, though the reasons for this are unclear, says Mehnert. “We don’t know whether we’ll be looking at additional decline in the long-term, or whether the level will remain static,” he says. The Mahomet’s water quality also may be threatened long-term. Buried 100 to 200 feet down in most areas, the Mahomet is largely protected from external pollutants.
However, it is being contaminated from within in some areas. West of the Piatt-Champaign County line, arsenic is leaching from the iron sulfide deposits in concentrations from 20 to 70 parts per billion. Commercial-scale water-treatment systems can remove arsenic from community water supplies.However, arsenic also is showing up in shallower rural wells in Piatt County, where removal comes with a considerably higher cost for individual residents. While pitcher and faucet filters can remove nitrates and some pesticides, they don’t remove arsenic. Removing arsenic, which has been linked to skin cancers, involves whole-house filtration systems that can cost thousands of dollars and must be frequently monitored by homeowners.
At 20 to 70 ppb the Mahomet’s arsenic levels near Monticello exceed new federal standards. Amidst public outcry, lawsuits from environmental organizations, and a National Academy of Sciences finding that the U.S. EPA had substantially underestimated cancer risks from arsenic, the Bush administration reversed its previous course and allowed a 10 ppb standard to stand in June. Never mind that the 10 ppb standard was originally proposed in 1962.Whether similar intervention will cause the agency to reassess its policies regarding atrazine remains to be seen. As of June 18, the EPA’s inspector general began investigating whether the agency is deliberately misleading the public by overstating the purity of U.S. drinking water.
In the meantime, I fear for the man who now tills the soils of Broadmoor.With the death of my mother in 2000, my family’s ties to the farm were legally severed. Yet by any damage or benefit we imparted to the land, our legacy remains.We can never be truly separated from the land any more than the land can be separated from the water. This is the nature of the moor.
Anna Barnes is a free-lance writer and a former agricultural magazine editor. She has written for Science Now, the online magazine of Science, in addition to producing educational materials concerning food, agriculture, and science for the University of Illinois. Her photographs of Broadmoor are part of a solo exhibition, Full Circle, at gallery virtu cooperative in Monticello through September 30. See www.galleryvirtu.org for details.