CHAMPAIGN, Ill., 12/6/19: With its unique geology marked by sinkholes, crevices, and caves, Jo Daviess County is highly susceptible to water contamination. Scientists from the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) and Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) are using their expertise and collaborating with a local organization to help citizens understand water quality issues and protect their water supplies.
A porous karst terrain full of holes
As the only county in Illinois hilly enough to have a ski resort, Jo Daviess County has a karst terrain, which is an area with thin soil coverage over limestone bedrock that fractured over time, producing abundant crevices. Crevices wide enough to cause the overlying soils to collapse into them result in the formation of sinkholes, windows to the underworld.
Eventually, some crevices expanded to become caves. With each hard rain and snow melt, water runs off and enters the fractures and crevices and flows into underlying aquifers, which are used as a water source for Galena and surrounding areas.
Sam Panno, a principal scientist at ISGS, says that the area is also riddled with holes that Native Americans and later settlers dug to mine lead ore found near the surface of the bedrock.
“They make the area look like it has been bombed because of the abundant man-made sinkholes,” Panno said.
People have been known to throw trash and debris in sinkholes, which act as mini-landfills.
The concern with karst areas is that water travels through the top land surface quickly, compared to most groundwater systems, entering though sinkholes and flowing through large crevices so there is less opportunity for water contaminants to be adsorbed or degraded, according to Walt Kelly, ISWS groundwater geochemist.
“Pretty much every spring and many of the wells we have sampled in karst regions contain bacteria and many other water contaminants, such as sodium chloride from road salt and nitrates from agricultural practices,” Kelly said. “It’s very important to monitor the land use activities, as these can easily affect the quality of the aquifers.”
A county divided
Panno became involved in a local conflict in 2007 when a large animal confinement operation was built in the area, featuring a 10,000-head dairy cattle facility. At the time, the League of Women Voters (LWV) in Jo Daviess County contacted the scientists for their knowledge of karst features to help educate citizens. Emotions ran high as several groups fought to keep the dairy from operating.
“This issue really divided our county,” said Beth Baranski, LWV project coordinator and a member of the county board at the time. “The main focus was whether such a facility should be located in a karst area. We needed to have a rational dialog to fully understand the geology and decide how best to manage the county’s water resources.”
The county board asked Panno to write a description of the county geology, which was sent to the Attorney General in Springfield. Later, Panno testified at county hearings, using his knowledge of karst topography and water contamination.
“With 1 million gallons of animal waste a year to be applied to surrounding fields from the facility, and the area aquifer being so susceptible to contamination, it made little sense to locate an operation of this size in a karst area,” Panno said.
Kelly later agreed.
“Karst is a terrible place to put such a facility,” he said.
Education is key
Although the dairy was eventually abandoned, Kelly and Panno have continued collaborating with Baranski in gathering data about the karst area and its sinkholes and crevices, mapping the area, and sharing information with stakeholders.
“Initially, there were a lot of questions because when karst came up, no one had heard of it,” Baranski said. “We have relied on the ISWS and ISGS scientists to help us achieve science-based stewardship and define the projects that have moved us forward. Their assistance is priceless. We are now making tremendous progress in the county.”
Through the collaboration, a countywide group of farmers has been established to advise on water resource management issues related to agriculture, including identifying ways to reduce the amount of nitrates from fertilizers entering the aquifers. The goal was to allow farmers to lead efforts in caring for the soil and keeping nutrient runoff to a minimum, Panno said.
The team has worked collaboratively to obtain funding for educational outreach, water sampling, and other efforts.
In August 2019, the LWV in Jo Daviess County was one of three national teams to win a $50,000 award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a water quality challenge. The Jo Daviess County collaboration demonstrated how a low-cost, edge-of-field sensor could support farmers in reducing nitrogen loss. The sensors provide real-time data to inform farm-scale management decisions.
The challenge helped to strengthen connections between the scientists, advocates, and farmers, Panno said.
“These efforts helped to make a more cohesive society in the county and more integration of different groups,” he said. “Citizens aren’t blaming the farmers and the farmers aren’t blaming city people. It’s no longer one side versus the other.”
The latest project for the collaborators is to develop a county database of karst features. Once the database is operational, data on sinkholes, caves, springs, and water quality in the aquifers will be available for local reference. The team has obtained grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for further characterization of karst features and to create the database.
“The best part is being able to ascertain the chemistry of water in shallow aquifers, “Baranski said. “We can chart how quickly we are contaminating aquifers or if we are doing a better job of protecting our water resources.”
The scientists have published ISGS reports related to their efforts in Jo Daviess County, including Characterization of Karst Terrain and Regional Tectonics Using Remotely Sensed Data in Jo Daviess County, Illinois, Karst of the Driftless Area of Jo Daviess County, Illinois, Identification of Sources of Fecal Pollution at Karst Waters, and Guide to the Geology, Hydrogeology, Botany, History, and Archaeology of the Driftless Area of Northwestern Illinois, Jo Daviess County.
Media contact: Sam Panno, 217-244-2456, firstname.lastname@example.org; Walt Kelly, 217-333-3729, email@example.com; Tricia Barker, Associate Director for Strategic Communications, 217-300-2327, firstname.lastname@example.org