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Fire good for water: Catch basin burn part of Elgin effort to clean up ecosystem

Steven Letizi TGF Forestry Fire burns an areinvasive plants Thursday storm water detentibasMcLean Holmes Elgin. | Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times

Steven Letizia of TGF Forestry and Fire burns an area of invasive plants Thursday in a storm water detention basin at McLean and Holmes in Elgin. | Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 6, 2013 6:24AM

ELGIN — A crew set a series of small, controlled brush fires at the northwest corner of McLean Boulevard and Holmes Road Thursday morning as part of a first of its kind effort by the city to improve area water quality.

Sometimes the elements of the universe work together for the benefit of Mother Nature, and this was one of those times — given some help from people to address an issue created by people.

The burn took place at a 3-acre naturalized stormwater detention basin. It should help purify runoff heading to Jelke Creek from 180 nearby acres that include an industrial park, part of a subdivision and part of the Sherman Hospital site.

“(The basin) is designed to collect stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces such as streets and parking lots and naturally filter the stormwater before it enters the watershed,” Public Works Superintendent Colby Basham said. “There are a lot of impurities from the impervious surfaces that make their way into the watershed, including greases, oils, road salt and such, and these naturalized basins help to clean up the water before it enters the streams and rivers.”

City engineer Mike Hall added that such areas also help prevent fertilizers and animal waste from making their way into the rest of the water system. In bodies of water, such material can cause algae growth or over-blooming of water plants, thus disrupting the ecosystem.

Areas like the one at McLean and Holmes are a move toward having catch basins do more than just flood control by having them play a role in maintaining water quality, Hall noted.

Being naturalized also means that instead of the typical turf grass and concrete design of many a detention area, this site has been planted with myriad native species, quite a few of which bloom brightly in summer and which filter stormwater before it enters the watershed.

Basham said this is the first project of its sort for Elgin, and the overhaul of an existing basin was done in 2011. Hall said a look at the retrofitting can be found on the city’s website through the engineering tab on the pull-down menu under city services.

“We have hopes of completing similar project in the future, but none are currently being designed,” Basham said.

Basham noted that the city’s infrastructure includes about 196 miles of storm system pipes and more than 45 miles of combination sewers, which convey storm and sanitary waste. Along with that, city staff maintains more the 22 retention and detention basins.

“And there are hundreds of privately owned detention basins throughout the city that are managed by homeowners associations or private industry and many of which are in a state of poor repair and have not been properly maintained. All of these systems combine to make up the conveyance systems that handle stormwater and snow melt in our city,” Basham said.

The work at McLean and Holmes included redesigning the floor of the basin to retain water so that newly planted, extremely deep-rooted plants would filter the impurities into the plants and soil instead of passing these impurities along into the creek, Basham said.

The project cost about $90,000, with $30,000 coming from federal funding and the rest from fees set aside from developers to be used for such efforts, Basham noted. The city brought in Elgin-based HLR Civil Engineering to manage the project, helping bring the site to maturation so the city can maintain the area itself.

“The yearly maintenance for the first three years will be about $7,000 per year,” Basham said. “That includes mowing by hand...because you have to leave about 12 to 18 inches of material. It also includes weed control, burning, mechanical control of weed and vegetation, controlled herbicide applications, chemical control of cattails, over seeding, bank stabilization, blanketing, and other work.”

Thursday’s burn was done to rid the area of invasive species, particularly hybrid cattails, and to remove other unwanted matter from the soil. While certain cattails are native to Illinois, HLR environmental biologist Karen Kase said that some cattails tend to be super aggressive and override an area, choking out biodiversity.

The burning went quickly and so well that Kase said workers would be out seeding the site with 35 or so native plant species in the afternoon. Those plants would include butterfly weed, wild quinine, Indian grass, little blue stem, and big blue stem. She noted that such sites also can attract wildlife particularly waterfowl such as ducks, heron and even egrets.

In addition to helping Mother Nature, the redesigned basin also helps the city address bureaucratic mandates.

“We must fill out detailed documentation about our efforts to reduce and improve water quality in the watershed and the educational component of our efforts to the IEPA annually in our reports,” Basham said.

“This is certainly a green project that fits in well with the city’s sustainability master plan,” Basham added. “I have stood in an un-naturalized basin and literally seen a thin sheen of oil and gas residue floating on the water surface. If (projects like the one at McLean and Holmes) can eliminate those pollutants from entering the creeks and rivers, then that seems like a perfect fit into becoming a more green community.”

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