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Saline Branch Fish Kill Settlement


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Most of us in the ISA are aware of the fish kill that occurred there several years ago during a boiler cleaning operation at the University of Illinois. That case will be resolved soon and it appears the defendants will be forced to pay a settlement of $450,000 for the damage done to the fisheries and habitat in those streams. The next phase of the process will involve a public comment period on the use of the settlement money to restore the stream.

 

At this moment, the IDNR intendeds to use those funds is for the construction of rock structures designed to stablize banks and create downcutting areas (depth) at specific locations in the Saline Branch (a small tributary of the Salt Fork). Prairie Rivers Network has commented publically that they feel the better use of those funds will be to strengthen the conservation reserve program in the Salt Fork drainage, or to acquire preserves in the riparian zone of the Salt Fork drainage through simple fee purchases. Either use of the settlement funds is possible, although at this time the official plan is to build the rock structures.

 

There is an ongoing discussion about the use of these funds, and as one of the major resource users on that system, we are going to be a part of that debate. The ISA will be participating in the public comment phase of this settlement. This is an important chance to let our voice be heard both here on the forum and in public hearings to come later. Please be aware that the content of this thread could well become part of the public discussion. At a minimum, several of the players in this discussion will read what we say here.

 

A few facts are in order:

 

1. The settlement money must be used to benefit the impacted population of fish (and the impact on the smallmouth population is apparently being given special weight since it is the only major fishery in the system).

 

2. Fish (smallmouth bass) move between the Saline Branch and the Salt Fork on a regular, mostly seasonal basis.

 

3. Although the settlement money can be used acquire land, it cannot over-ride the local authority of the drainage district (which is currently involved in channelizing large sections of the Salt Fork and seems determined to continue that practice indefinitely). Anything put in place as a restoration can be removed by the Drainage District if they deem it a restriction on flow and a flooding hazard. Presently, the drainage district on the Saline Branch is willing to allow the proposed rock structures. It is less clear to me that the drainage district on the Salt Fork is willing to allow rock structures there.

 

4. The sewage treatment plant through which this spill occurred is still in operation on the Saline Branch and will be for the foreseeable future. Although the Saline Branch has smallmouth bass and a reasonable number of fish species in it, it also has some of the highest downstate concentrations of nutrients and other contaminants due to the presence of the sewage treatment plant (as measured by the IEPA's Ambient Water Quality Monitoring Network).

 

5. This is not the first fish kill on the Saline Branch. Numerous chemical spills associated with the University of Illinois have occurred over the years, entering the Saline Branch from Boneyard Creek on the campus.

 

6. Rock structures do attract smallmouth bass and concentrate them where they are more accessible to anglers. It is less clear that those structures benefit fish populations in question. Harvest of fish from highly visible rock structures becomes more likely. Other population bottlenecks such as spawning substrate or survival of juvenile fish may negate the benefits of rock structures to the fishery.

 

7. Rock structures do not benefit the majority of fish species in the stream.

 

8. In my opinion, habitat is definitely limiting the smallmouth bass population on the Saline Branch. It is a relatively high gradient system for this area, but it has been channelized in the past and it carries a heavy load of sand bedload. The majority of the system has sparse cover with the only available habitat located in the root wads and tree trunks a small riparian fringe, plus a few larger flow refuges.

 

9. The approach Prairie Rivers Network wants to take is to acquire other high quality tributaries and revert them to a conservation trust (an offshoot of the Nature Conservancy). The logic here is that those tributaries will serve as a source population to replinish the Salt Fork if another spill occurs.

 

10. IDNR has countered Prairie River's arguement by saying that those high quality tributaries do not have the species diversity necessary to replinish the Salt Fork after a major fish kill. They also have said that the cost of acquiring that land may be prohibitive (given that with 0.45K you could acquire at the most a couple hundred acres).

 

Currently, my perception of the facts surrounding this issue is as follows:

 

1. It is not clear to me that by attracting smallmouth bass to those rock structures, the population of smallmouth is necessarily helped. It might be helped, and and the ability to catch fish at those spots is certain to improve but the effect on the overall system and overall species diversity is likely to be nil or even negative in a few cases.

 

2. A land aquisition, even a small one that allows for riparian restoration will provide many of the same benefits as the rock structures through gradual restoration of the riparian zones. In addition it provides the potential for public access, recreation etc. The potential for the drainage district to come in and destroy a reserve by removing riparian cover and channelizing does exist. However, it also exists to a degree for the rock structures.

 

3. Neither the proposed rock or reserve restorations address the actual failures in the system that caused the fish kill. The things that are "broken" in the system have not been restored. In my opinion, the likelihood that another fish kills will eventually occur again in Saline Branch the future is very high. Anything that attracts and holds fish in an area close to likely disturbances in the future, enhancing the likelihood that they will suffer from additional fish kills in the future.

 

What facts are missing here? What restoration should the ISA support?

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It looks like we really are being presented with two options, one from the IDNR and one from PRN.

 

Just throwing out ideas...

 

Tim:

 

1. Are there any other viable options we can present with a reasonable argument within the budget allowed?

 

2. Without an idea of land costs, it's hard to say how much effect land acquisition will have. I would assume that might be a long drawn out process.

 

3. With land acquisition, is it possible to just acquire shoreline making the money go way farther? I'm thinking something like the IDNR proposed along the Apple.

 

4. It looks like the IDNR is basically doing some shoreline restoration and throwing in some fish. Not that there's anything wrong with that....

 

5. Who runs (makes decisions) the trust regarding land acquisition if it goes the PRN way?

 

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When you talk of the Conservation Reserve Program, I think of ten year leases. Is that accurate? If so, what happens to the land when the leases run out? Purchasing the land, preferably corridor strips, like Jim mentioned, seems a lot more permanent to me. The potential for the drainage district to come in and channelize is the same if it's purchased land or CRP land. Correct? I would hope that either way, a drainage district would give some weight to the "conservation" status of property, particularly property acquired to offset environmental damage.

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A little background (case study, if you will) on how local stakeholders approach these kinds of issues:

http://prairierivers.org/Archives/PressRel...anaSTP0506.html

 

History of this particular event, going back to 2002:

Prairie Rivers Document

 

I'm interested in knowing if the suggested remediation (by the IDNR) complies with Clean Water Act standards, and if not...is legal action still an option available.

 

Note that there are many stakeholders in this watershed that stand to be affected in the event of another kill.

 

Tim Smith and others put forth a great deal of effort this year on a tributary to the Saline- Boneyard Creek. It is a tributary of Saline Branch of the Salt Fork Vermilion River, which is a tributary of the south-flowing Vermilion River and the Wabash River.

http://www.boneyardcreek.org/

 

That should give you a better overall picture of what's at stake here.

 

Saline Branch:

800px-SalineBranch.JPG

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It looks like we really are being presented with two options, one from the IDNR and one from PRN.

 

Those are the ones currently on the table that I know about, yes. More may arise during the public comment period.

 

Tim:

 

1. Are there any other viable options we can present with a reasonable argument within the budget allowed?

 

Possibly. We might be perceived as a loose cannon if we come in with another proposal at this point, but I do plan to at least see why the restoration wasn't focused on the sewage treatment plant.

 

The plant is located in Urbana. I don't know of any land nearby that would be available to create finishing wetlands, but there might be. The effluent pipe would almost certainly have to be extended across the river if that were to occur. That sounds expensive to me. We'll see.

 

There might be some backlash against that idea if some saw the plant as being rewarded with half a million dollars for sending lethal levels of ammonia into the stream. I don't think I would agree with that backlash. Maintaining additional water treatment equipment or acreage is no reward. It hardly sets a precent for other plants to get sloppy with emmissions. No one would try that as a means to fund their plant.

 

2. Without an idea of land costs, it's hard to say how much effect land acquisition will have. I would assume that might be a long drawn out process.

 

Yes. The foundation in question is used to that kind of thing, but it would take a long time.

 

 

3. With land acquisition, is it possible to just acquire shoreline making the money go way farther? I'm thinking something like the IDNR proposed along the Apple.

 

I think the conservation set-aside program can work that way, yes. One way this might get done would be to sweeten existing programs and improve the bottom line for land owners to convert more land into conservation acreage.

 

4. It looks like the IDNR is basically doing some shoreline restoration and throwing in some fish. Not that there's anything wrong with that....

 

Yes. Plus habitat is limited there. The specific structure they intend to use is a "j-vane". They will cause some deepening and downcutting too. The structures will probably increase the numbers of smallmouth in the system.

 

5. Who runs (makes decisions) the trust regarding land acquisition if it goes the PRN way?

 

The Land Conservation Foundation, a spin-off of the Nature Conservancy. Access is being touted as one advantage of the preservation approach. I assume the public would have some level of access to the river on that land.

 

 

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Nice additions, Mike. That's the Saline Branch alright.

 

I'm interested in knowing if the suggested remediation (by the IDNR) complies with Clean Water Act standards, and if not...is legal action still an option available.

 

Note that there are many stakeholders in this watershed that stand to be affected in the event of another kill.

 

I don't know all the ins and outs, Mike, but my impression is that everyone is pretty much sick to death of the legal process at this point.

 

The University, the advocacy groups..

 

...they've all been through the grinder and they're ready to be done.

 

I don't know if anyone is thinking about going back to court over this...but it's always possible.

 

I do think the rock structures that are planned could definitely be considered a form of restoration. I'd be surprised if using them violates the Clean Water Act.

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Yes. Plus habitat is limited there. The specific structure they intend to use is a "j-vane". They will cause some deepening and downcutting too. The structures will probably increase the numbers of smallmouth in the system.

 

Point of clarification here:

 

The rock structures will definitely attract fish. They may keep fish in the Saline Branch longer than they would have stayed normally or perhaps year round. It's less clear that they will increase the total amount of fish in the system. They might.

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When you talk of the Conservation Reserve Program, I think of ten year leases. Is that accurate?

 

The lease option is one way to go, yes.

 

Purchasing the land, preferably corridor strips, like Jim mentioned, seems a lot more permanent to me. The potential for the drainage district to come in and channelize is the same if it's purchased land or CRP land. Correct?

 

I agree and yes.

 

I would hope that either way, a drainage district would give some weight to the "conservation" status of property, particularly property acquired to offset environmental damage.

 

On the Salt Fork, that has not been their pattern so far. They are trying to get permission to dredge a section of river that was dredged (illegally) 10 years ago and it already looks as shallow or shallower than it was before the first time it was dredged. How that's cost effective is beyond me. It seems they think it is their responsibility to dredge and at this point they bitterly resent anyone who tells them otherwise. The politics have made things pretty nasty on the Salt Fork where drainage is concerned. It's a ditch to them. Their ditch.

 

On the Saline Branch, maybe things are less volatile. They have agreed to have the rock structures put in place. Frankly those shouldn't impede flow.

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I would support a plan of action that includes eliminating or greatly reducing the possibilty of future contamination from chemical spills, etc.

 

I was just on the phone with the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District.

 

Apparently, since the spill they have already significantly upgraded their alarm and detections systems and they're in the midst of a comprehensive 40 million dollar upgrade of their operations. From their perspective, using the 0.45 mil settlement on the wastewater stream the amount of the settlement would be inadequate to further improve their operations and would provide negligible benefits compared to the improvements they've already made.

 

They have also been told that it would not be legal for the restoration to be used for their facility based on the legal interpretation of "restoration" (although given that a large percentage of the flow in the Saline Branch comes from their plant, I suspect that could be gotten around either by focusing mitigations at the end of the pipe or by widening some definitions).

 

In any case, that point is moot because UCSD doesn't want that money.

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I was just on the phone with the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District.

 

Apparently, since the spill they have already significantly upgraded their alarm and detections systems and they're in the midst of a comprehensive 40 million dollar upgrade of their operations. From their perspective, using the 0.45 mil settlement on the wastewater stream the amount of the settlement would be inadequate to further improve their operations and would provide negligible benefits compared to the improvements they've already made.

 

They have also been told that it would not be legal for the restoration to be used for their facility based on the legal interpretation of "restoration" (although given that a large percentage of the flow in the Saline Branch comes from their plant, I suspect that could be gotten around either by focusing mitigations at the end of the pipe or by widening some definitions).

 

In any case, that point is moot because UCSD doesn't want that money.

 

No being much of an expert in anything in particular.... how does their output flow stand up with the EPA's specifications?

 

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No one's an expert in all of these things, Jim.

 

They're generally in compliance.

 

This fish kill occurred because the U of I and the company that cleaned the U of I's boilers didn't warn them that they were sending a hyper-concentrated slug of ammonia through the sewage system into their plant. By the time the UCSD realised what was happening, the ammonia was already in their system killing the bacteria in their sludge reactors. There was no way to keep the ammonia out of the river at that point.

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A point of clarification on my assumption about the Clean Water Act.

I read from the 2002 PRN document that there would be legal issues if the CWA was not adhered to, as is often the case for various issues anyway.

My question was whether the rock structures sufficiently address the problem in a manner consistent with the CWA guidelines.

 

But it looks to be taking a different path since that document was written.

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I've spent about 12 years walking the stream in all seasons. I think rock structures would help provide spawning areas. Buying small access areas to promote canoeing/kayaking would be great too.

Philf

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