Our Mahomet Aquifer

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By Jacquelyn Potter, Sierra Club Prairie Group
Jacquelyn Potter is on the Executive Committee of the local Sierra Club, where she is involved in activism with many issues, including water protection, and serves on the Mahomet Aquifer Model group.

Water issues have always been at the forefront of environmental and human rights concerns. This year was eye-opening for many following the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) conflict and its impact upon surface water. However, another critical issue is protection of our vital underground water sources against such threats. Our Mahomet Aquifer, lying right underneath us here in Champaign County and several other counties, supplies over 100 million gallons of water per day to over 500,000 in East Central Illinois.  Just think about that for a minute. Water. Is. Life.

What’s so special about the water from the Mahomet Aquifer? It exceeds other water sources in its purity. When you drink water from the Mahomet Aquifer, you are drinking very ancient water that fell to Earth between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago, well before the contaminants of our recent times. The Mahomet Aquifer is part of the prehistoric Mahomet River Valley, where water flowed upon bedrock and was layered with sand and gravel and buried beneath hundreds of feet of clay, compliments of the glaciers.

One major issue surrounding aquifers is how and where they recharge and how recharge is balanced with withdrawal. This is a complex topic, subject to much ongoing research. Illinois State Geological Survey Carbon-14 analysis shows the water underneath Champaign County is 5,000 to 7,000 years younger than 50 miles west, which reveals the highest amount of recharge is in northern Champaign County. Some researchers believe high withdrawal or over-consumption is a greater threat to the aquifer than contamination, especially in dry years when river flooding (a major source of recharge) doesn’t happen. A report by the Mahomet Aquifer Consortium revealed the highest level of withdrawal from both surface water and aquifer is by far thermoelectric power generation (coal, petro, natural gas and nuclear) with another figure showing it as 74% of total withdrawal: 1,315 million gallons per day. Conversely, the rate of recharge is estimated to be hundreds of millions of gallons per day, a figure thought optimistic by some. Close to half of Illinois’ population depends upon groundwater, and in rural areas, the number is closer to 90%. Therefore, improved conservation and protection of this precious resource is of utmost importance.

Public interest in protecting the Mahomet Aquifer began to increase just over a decade ago. In March of 2007, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) issued a permit to Clinton Landfill to store potentially hazardous waste (e.g. polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs) at the landfill in DeWitt County sitting directly above the Mahomet Aquifer. For several years, this was fought, and finally then-Governor Pat Quinn directed the IEPA to stop approval of PCB waste storage at the landfill. By winter 2012, officials petitioned the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to designate the Mahomet Aquifer a “sole-source aquifer.” Such designation recognizes how vital the aquifer is as a source of water, giving special protection. The USEPA is required to review federally-funded projects located above the aquifer to ensure no danger to our drinking water supply. Over 400 people attended public hearings on sole-source designation, many expressing support for the designation; none were against it. By spring 2014, the USEPA issued preliminary approval of sole-source, and a year later was approved. Although sole-source designation requires EPA review for federally-assisted projects that would potentially contaminate the aquifer, projects funded by state, local or private entities are not subject to review. Therefore, sole-source designation did not affect Clinton Landfill plans, as it is privately funded. However, heightened attention toward aquifer protection did lead to passage of state law, when Representative Carol Ammons and Senator Scott Bennett introduced bills to protect the aquifer. Specifically, materials containing high PCBs and manufactured gas plant waste are prohibited in landfills above the aquifer. The legislation aimed at preventing Clinton Landfill from continuing plans to accept the toxic chemicals. Recently, another bill was approved establishing a Mahomet Aquifer Task Force to study the water source, develop a plan to maintain the quality of the aquifer, identify current and potential contamination threats, identify actions that ensure long-term protection, and make legislative recommendations to protect the aquifer.

These developments have bearing on the pipeline issue, as it has direct impact on the water sources in Illinois. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) mostly affects surface water; however, the proposed pipeline expansion by Canadian corporation Enbridge to “twin” the Line 61 pipeline running through Illinois from Canada threatens surface water, but also runs directly over a Mahomet Aquifer recharge area. Central Illinois has become a major route for Canadian Tar Sands crude oil, with Enbridge sending up to 880,000 barrels a day through a pipeline constructed above the Mahomet Aquifer. History shows the question is not if a pipeline will break, but when. Sierra Club looked at Enbridge’s history of spills from years 1999 to 2010, finding it responsible for over 800 spills. The 2010 Enbridge spill in the Kalamazoo River required massive removal of streambed soil (to recover embedded oil). Because the Mahomet Aquifer is a deep aquifer, it is better protected than shallow aquifers; however, it can be contaminated. Therefore, protective measures are important, as it is extremely difficult to clean up contaminated surface water, but it is near impossible to clean up a deep underground aquifer once contaminated. Considering the Enbridge track record, it is extremely negligent to have the pipeline along the trajectory directly crossing Mahomet Aquifer recharge areas, and to allow for expansion along the same trajectory would be bordering on the absurd.

Pipeline deregulation has amounted to a weakening of the environmental review process, which is of utmost concern regarding sensitive areas such as streams or recharge areas, known as HCAs or “high consequence areas.” Some landowners said they were never informed the pipeline would be for Canadian Tar Sands Crude, which is much more pollutive and caustic due to high levels of volatile organic compounds. Doug Hayes, attorney for the Sierra Club, expects to prove the pipeline violates the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. “We have a strong case that the government deliberately segmented the project to avoid an environmental review.” Hayes said oil corporations saw the controversy of Keystone XL and intentionally planned the pipeline through central Illinois “behind closed doors.”

With this in mind, activist groups have been mobilizing in response to the proposed Enbridge pipeline expansion, informing Illinois land owners about the dangers the pipelines pose and the tactics used by the corporations to take their land.  There have been meetings with local and state government. In fall of 2016, local environmental activists and Native American representatives spoke to the Urbana City Council about dangers pipelines pose to surface waters and aquifers. The Urbana City Council responded, drafting a resolution that stressed the need to protect our aquifers. These efforts, along with the addition of the Mahomet Aquifer Task Force, aim at increasing awareness about the potential threats to our aquifers.

A longer-term viewpoint looks at how they are all connected.  That is, in order to best protect the Mahomet Aquifer, there must also be protection for the streams and rivers that recharge it. There is precedence that addresses the importance of this, as demonstrated when the EPA restored Clean Water Act protections for 48,782 miles of streams in Illinois, protecting against development of wetlands, dumping by coal companies, power plants and meat-processing plants. Both surface and underground water sources are depended upon for drinking water by approximately 1,680,948 Illinoisans. If so many are dependent upon the Mahomet Aquifer and surface waters that recharge it, all being vulnerable to overuse and contamination, then how is it the right of the few over the many to over-exploit and pollute? This question is pertinent to both the Dakota Access pipeline as well as the Enbridge pipeline, and we the people of Illinois must decide what kind of future we want for ourselves and our ancient waterways.

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