National Award Highlights Power of Science in Sustainable Development

Jo Daviess County alfalfa field showing crop lines indicative of karst geology

When the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Jo Daviess County was recognized with the Effective Community Engagement Award at the organization’s 52nd National Convention June 16-19, it represented powerful example of citizen action to influence healthy development, effective land use-planning, and resource management.

They were honored for spearheading a two-year effort to develop a new county-wide Water Resource Management Plan, completed in June, including a list of continuing actions that they hope will guide future decisions on appropriate land use and resource protection in the future.

It was also a triumph for science. The geology of Jo Daviess County is unusual and complex and its citizens have drawn on the expertise of the Prairie Research Institute for nearly a decade to understand the importance of knowing what lies beneath our feet.


The story began in 2007 when a California developer sought permission to establish two large dairy farms in a rural area near Nora, Ill. The Jo Daviess County Board quickly contacted Sam Panno, senior geochemist at the Illinois State Geological Survey, who provided reports warning that there was a strong possibility that the land in the region was karst.

Karst is characterized by bedrock layers dissolved over centuries by rainwater to form complex drainage systems with fractures, crevasses, sinkholes and caves. In such conditions, manure from 11,000 head of cattle would require expensive steel-reinforced concrete waste-storage lagoons to prevent contamination of the county’s drinking water supplies.

Without definitive proof of the geology of the region, the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) granted a permit for the farms, setting off five years of litigation and controversy involving the local citizens and officials, IDOA, Illinois’ Environmental Protection Agency, Attorney General, the Governor, the federal Department of Justice, the U.S. EPA, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The plan for the dairy farms was eventually abandoned, but the episode left deep rifts between pro-dairy and anti-dairy factions in the county. “Karst became a divisive political issue not a scientific term,” said Bonnie Cox, president of the county’s LWV chapter. “Many people didn’t believe that we had it.” So the league took on the issue and hydrogeology became an unlikely public platform to build consensus and heal some of those divisions by focusing on the nearly invisible characteristics of their home ground.

“Our approach was intentionally collaborative, learning to look at regulation from the perspective of those being regulated,” said Cox. “Science has been the key to help us move beyond controversy and build consensus. With presentations and seminars with PRI experts and others “I don’t think anyone could doubt the geology once they saw all the evidence,” she added.

That work began in 2012 with public meetings and a massive public auto tour of the county’s features. “It was quite a sight,” said Cox. Seventy cars snaking over the rolling hills, throwing up clouds of dust as the PRI researchers led a safari to the key geologic features in the county. A second publication, a guide book of that county-wide tour will soon be published by ISGS as Guide Book 42.

“PRI has been the guiding reference point for the science,” stated Beth Baranski, who chaired the Water Resource Management Plan effort for the League. Panno and ISGS colleagues including Dennis Kolata, Donald Luman, and Donald Keefer and the Illinois State Water Survey’s (ISWS) Walton Kelly continued their work by conducting the most definitive study of the geology of the county to date, Circular 589: “Characterization of karst terrain and regional tectonics using remotely sensed data in Jo Daviess County.”

Geological investigations in Jo Daviess County were targeted to verify the existence of karst, and research drew attention to the high vulnerability for contamination of the shallow bedrock aquifer. However, the leading edge in geologic mapping has been conducted in the near-Chicago counties of Lake, McHenry, and (soon) Will, taking the science of 3D geologic mapping to the next level.

These Chicago-area counties are the most thoroughly mapped jurisdictions of their size in the world, according to ISGS Director Richard C. Berg. “Knowing the geology and hydrology where you live makes a critical difference in where businesses can go and how water resources are managed,” he said.  In these counties, multiple layers of aquifers and other deposits are mapped in detail from land surface to the uppermost bedrock (approximately 200 feet deep) using hundreds of exploratory borings and logs from tens of thousands of water wells to help define layer thicknesses and extents.

From this a “block model” can be constructed of the counties, so that county officials will have full knowledge of what lies under our feet when considering land- and water-use development of any region within their jurisdictions. These models are also the foundation for groundwater yield and flow evaluations by PRI’s State Water Survey, and they have conducted numerous of these groundwater modeling evaluations throughout the Chicagoland area, particularly in McHenry County.        

“Many counties make important investment decisions on groundwater resources before scientific studies become available,” said Berg. “It’s a gamble because those expenditures might have been different if they had more complete information.”

“As projected growth in Will and McHenry Counties occurs, planners and citizens there will be in a position to make more economical and effective development decisions,” Berg continued.

Such geomodelling was originated and developed largely by the oil and gas industry, Berg explained. But for the past 20 years, the ISGS has participated in a broad multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional Great Lakes Geologic Mapping Coalition which has provided critical mapping science to priority areas throughout the Great Lakes region. In Illinois, Lake, McHenry, and Will Counties have been the beneficiaries of that 3D mapping effort.

“Every county has its own story of how deposits were laid down and how they are interrelated,” Berg said. “Understanding what is underground is the best solution for making development decisions that stand the test of time.”

Cox and Baranski have collaborated with PRI scientists to secure funding for such a complete geomodelling of Jo Daviess County, so far without success. But the citizen’s Water Resource Management group is moving ahead with their own to-do list, including water sampling at 16 county springs. Volunteers from ISGS and ISWS will assist in the work to obtain enough samples to allow statistical analysis and establish the background water chemistry for the region and gain insight into the susceptibility of the aquifer to surface-borne contaminants.

The County Water Management Plan is also providing scientific insights and a functional model to expand LWV’s resource management efforts with Leagues within the Upper Mississippi watershed.

According to county LWV President Cox, “The League is using Circular 589 to build consensus between planners, public health professionals, zoning officials, highway engineers, the agricultural community, local government officials, and the general public about the nature of our hydrogeology, the vulnerability of our water resources to contamination, and the best management practices most appropriate for our area.”

“This publication has allowed us to improve awareness, increase understanding, and provide a basis for effective future land use planning and water resource management in Jo Daviess County,” Cox added. “Looking forward, we also hope to use the Circular to address important legislative changes related to karst areas in Illinois.”

Video: The Power of Science in Sustainable Development

Photo above: Low-altitude oblique photograph of a Jo Daviess County alfalfa field taken during a drought in 2012. The complex networks of vegetated crop lines suggested deep crevasses in the bedrock indicative of karst. © 2015 University of Illinois Board of Trustees. (For permission information, contact the Illinois State Geological Survey.)