Half the major streams and lakes in the metro-east do not receive any kind of monitoring for the safety of nearby residents or health of the environment because of cutbacks at the state's Environmental Protection Agency.
"We simply have too few staff and too much water," Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Manager Gregg Good said. "We are a very water-rich state and we are surrounded by water."
Seventy testing sites along local streams and lakes are not monitored within Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties. In the most prevalent example, 71 percent of such sites in Monroe County have not been assessed. None of the smaller tributaries that commonly flow through local residential areas have been tested.
Fewer than 9 percent of local streams and lakes tested sought to find whether the water is safe for people to touch, drink or eat the fish. A vast majority of the testing intends to determine whether the water can support aquatic life.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency cut 126 positions since 2008 and is now completely dependent upon money from the federal government and state fees. Another seven positions are targeted for elimination in the coming fiscal year. In 2008, the agency had 1,028 workers; it now has 902 workers.
The agency's Bureau of Water, which monitors the health of streams and lakes, cut 43 of its 326 positions since 2008, more than 13 percent of its work force. The agency has 13 remaining field staff responsible for monitoring the state's 119,244 miles of streams; three biologists monitor 45 lakes, including Lake Michigan.
"The staff is getting a little thin," Good said.
The agency previously tested 218 sites along streams statewide but reduced that number to 146 sites, Good said. Likewise, half the state's lakes are tested on a three-year rotation.
About 15 percent of the streams in Illinois were assessed in the past two years along with about 47 percent of the state's 318,477 acres of lakes and ponds.
Volunteers have stepped up to fill in the gap where possible and are completing simple tests on more than 150 lakes per year, according to Cindy Skrukrud of the Sierra Club. The state accepts the tests, such as the water's acidity level, as a type of litmus test to see if further analysis is needed.
"We all know the state's finances are not good and we have definitely seen cutbacks in recent years in IEPA's monitoring program," Skrukrud said. "A definite result of the state's financial woes is that this has been deemed an area that we can cut. Certainly in the past IEPA has had a more extensive program than in recent years. If the funding was there, certainly our hope is to have no further cuts in the program but to build it up to levels in the past."
The Sierra Club successfully lobbied in 2010 for fees collected from those violating the Clean Water Act to be earmarked for the agency, Skrukrud said. Yet instead of adding to the agency's bottom line, the state legislature replaced general revenue money with anticipated revenue from the fees.
"While we hoped those funds would add to the IEPA's budget, it became a substitute for general revenue," Skrukrud said.
Prior to those fees heading to the IEPA, the agency received $1.67 million in general revenue.
Now, none of the agency's money comes from the state's general funds.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2501.