Leveraging the Region’s Water Resources

by Mick Hall
Bard Optical

Focus Forward CI has established an action team to identify challenges and work towards solutions to better leverage the region’s water resources.

The much heralded launch of Focus Forward CI (FFCI) was the first step in a five-year plan to develop strategies designed to attract and retain new business and talent to the five member counties of Central Illinois. FFCI quickly identified the region’s unique water resources, in particular the Illinois River, as key resources the group needed to harness in its economic development plan. The group then created the Water Resource Action Team (WRAT) to study the short- and long-term strategic value of water to the region and develop a timely, asset-based strategy for regional water resources.

To study the water (both ground and surface) resources issues, WRAT engaged several subject matter experts: Steve Wilson of the Illinois State Water Survey; John Marlin of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center; Eric Schenck of Ducks Unlimited; and Marshall Plumley of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

WRAT also sought input from regional groups invested in water resources. In April, WRAT shared its findings as part of a report delivered to FFCI’s Board of Directors.

Early Challenges
Water resources tend to be obvious, yet are often overlooked. For example, the Illinois River serves as a wonderful recreational asset for boaters, fishermen and hunters. But its impact on commerce cannot be overstated. The river is used to cool factories, sustain crops and provide passage to billions of dollars in barge traffic.

Surprisingly, WRAT found a lack of consistent water resource information regarding the river and other regional water sources. “As we began our analysis, we noted that no one source had all of the data we needed. So, before we could truly begin, we had to gather data from a variety of sources,” says Dan Daly, Peoria Region president of Busey Bank and WRAT co-chair.

In fact, the most recent research on ground and surface water resources was compiled over two decades ago. Therefore, the team had to develop a credible water resource database to benchmark water as an asset. These benchmarks would allow FFCI to provide transparent results for any actions it might take to leverage water resources as part of its economic development strategies.

WRAT’s research and report were crucially important. “[The WRAT report] is the most recent and creditable source regarding the water resource and future use projections,” notes Steve Wilson of the Illinois State Water Survey.

Impacted Market Sectors
With its database complete, WRAT identified six market sectors that played a part in its analysis:

  • Agriculture & Foods
  • Transportation & Logistics
  • Quality of Life
  • Water Science & Technology
  • Economics of Water
  • Industry.

The group selected these market sectors because each would be severely compromised if the availability and/or health of ground and surface water in the region began to diminish. With these sectors in mind, WRAT offered two “big ideas” that look to use water resources as engines to support FFCI’s economic development goals.

Big Idea #1
The WRAT report calls for the establishment of a “Central Park” that would highlight the Illinois River ecosystem. The first section of the park would be the 75 acres of islands being created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers near the McClugage Bridge. These islands will create a deep secondary channel along the eastside of Peoria Lake, enabling better access to East Peoria marinas and riverfront development.

The second section of “Central Park” would include 242 acres of Jenkins Marsh and VanZelst property purchased by Ducks Unlimited in 2010. In addition, Ducks Unlimited is working with the Jenkins family and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore an additional 83 acres bordering the Woodford County State Fish & Wildlife Area.

Finally, the third section would include 232 acres along the Illinois River known as the “Chillicothe Bottoms.” Ducks Unlimited plans to provide public access for outdoor recreation and hunting on the site. WRAT believes this regional initiative would spur job growth through construction, tourism and environmental science industries. It would also provide additional recreational opportunities attracting and retaining new residents.

Big Idea #2
The other recommendation made in the WRAT report focuses on a new water science and technology initiative. This initiative would focus on ecosystem restoration/management and water reclamation, use and reuse. The report cites the Illinois River, Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge, the Sankoty-Mahomet Aquifer, strip mine lakes and wetlands as potential expansion areas for environmental research. In fact, the Illinois River and Emiquon are already subjects of national and global research. In relation to water reclamation, use and reuse, the report suggests that 109 international companies are serving markets faced with water challenges. In theory, these companies could use existing regional water resources as part of onsite testing and product/service research and development.

Challenges Ahead
The WRAT report acknowledges there are challenges that lie ahead. First, coordinating the regulatory approvals is no small task, as a myriad of state and federal authorities have different levels of jurisdiction and oversight. Second, Peoria and Pekin will soon be facing significant investments to address wastewater treatment along the river. Third, point-of-source polluters from outside the five-county region can impact any plans FFCI may be championing. FFCI hopes to engage in a proactive dialogue with multiple regulatory bodies so that common goals can be achieved.

A Win-Win
WRAT’s report suggests that the “health of the Illinois River and ecosystem has direct impact on the current and future health of the regional economy.” Given that conclusion, FFCI is sharply focused on leveraging the river and other water resources through responsible stewardship that protects these incredibly valuable resources while also promoting economic development.

“What the WRAT report demonstrates is that FFCI can take a leadership role in convening diverse groups to collaborate on water research and projects. We can help coordinate efforts with regulatory bodies and take steps to hopefully add regional jobs while offering residents greater recreational use of local water resources. That is a win-win for our region,” says Diana Hall, president of Bard Optical and FFCI chair. iBi

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