There's not much to be thankful for regarding the drought we're in, but members of the Fox River Study Group have found one advantage.
The lack of rain has lowered the level of the Fox River so much that scientists finally could take low-flow measurements for a comprehensive study to help address pollution of the river.
It's something the group has been trying to do since 2006.
"Unfortunately, the last five years have been very wet years. We would set targets but could not meet them," said Cindy Skrukrud, chairman of the group.
"There was a whole group of people in the Fox River Valley happy it wasn't raining (in June)."
The group took samples and height measurements of the river from near the Stratton Dam in McHenry County south to Yorkville in late June.
Data from the samples and height measurements will be used to develop computer models that will calculate the effect of runoff, particularly runoff that damages the river.
For example, runoff containing nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers can spur the growth of algae, which consumes oxygen in the water. When the level of dissolved oxygen gets too low, fish die.
The model could identify especially sensitive regions. Polluted runoff comes from fields, parking lots and combined-sewer overflows.
One model, completed last September, mimics how pollution runs off during storms. A second model will examine what happens under critical low-flow conditions.
Scientists from the Illinois State Water Survey will calibrate the models. Ultimately, they will be used to evaluate changes that could be made in the Fox River watershed, or how to get the "best bang for the buck" to prevent pollution and improve the river's health, Skrukrud said.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, in its biennial report on rivers to Congress, identified the Fox as having low oxygen and a high number of aquatic plants, she said. The Illinois stretch of the river joined the IEPA's list of impaired rivers in 1998.
Other causes of pollution in the river include PCBs, siltation, suspended solids, alteration of the flow and alteration of its habitat. The four-phase "work plan" to improve the river began in 2002; this summer's measurements are part of the third phase.
The study is funded by the state and national EPA, the Kane County Grand Victoria Riverboat Casino fund and municipalities along the river. Representatives of the Sierra Club, Kane County, Aurora, Elgin, the Tri-Cities, Friends of the Fox River, the Fox Metro and Fox River water reclamation districts, and the Fox River Ecosystem Partnership sit on the board of directors.
Remedies could include changing fertilizing practices, preventing runoff or treating sanitary sewage differently. It could also hypothesize what would happen if dams were removed because algae growth is higher behind dams, Skrukrud said.
Don't expect to see solutions this year, however.
"It is a long-term plan," she added.
Skrukrud noted that the river has many uses, including fishing, boating, accepting sanitary effluent and providing drinking water for Aurora and Elgin.
"It's a struggle to balance all those demands on the river," Skrukrud said.
For more information on the study, go to foxriverstudygroup.org