Nonprofit group targets water quality in Catherine and Channel lakes

A determined group of residents near Antioch plans to employ a new tactic to improve the quality in two connected lakes.

Friends of Catherine and Channel Lakes, a nonprofit organization established in 2016, has a detailed lake management plan to reduce pollution and eradicate invasive species in two of Illinois' northernmost lakes.

This summer, with the help of an $11,000 grant from the Lake County Farm Bureau, the group is using a different approach to target a familiar problem. Using a highly absorbent, charcoal-like material called biochar, the organization hopes to trap and remove phosphorous and other pollutants.

It's part of an ongoing effort to eradicate invasive plants, reduce pollution and increase awareness to improve lake conditions for humans, plants and animals.

"We're working on a filtration project to try and filter out some sediments and nutrients that run into the lake," said Amy Littleton, president of the organization.

Runoff from storms and farms around the area have increased the level of phosphorous and other nutrients that contribute to widespread algae blooms in the spring, Littleton said. Some of the blooms can be toxic.

"It is a very well-known issue in lakes all over the country," she added.

Runoff containing phosphorous can lead to algae blooms in local lakes. Courtesy of Amy Littleton

While researching the topic, Littleton connected with Colorado-based Biochar Now LLC.

According to the company website, biochar is similar to charcoal that's produced using an ancient practice of heating wood or plant material with little to no oxygen.

Biochar is made under specific conditions and intended to increase soil fertility and sequester carbon to reverse global warming, the company says. But other market uses regularly are being discovered for the versatile material.

One of them is its ability to trap and bond substances, including phosphorous. Friends of Catherine and Channel Lakes will attach porous bags loaded with biochar onto docks and in other areas. Nutrient molecules are bound up in the special carbon in the bags and can't leave.

"The bad stuff stays on the filter and the good stuff flows through," Littleton said. "This biochar program will help us to take pollutants out of the lakes and reduce harmful algae blooms."

These are the types of "socks" that will be hung from docks and placed strategically in Catherine and Channel lakes near Antioch to absorb nutrients that cause algae blooms. Courtesy of Biochar Now LLC

Greg Koeppen, executive director of the Lake County Farm Bureau, said it's the first such partnership for the local organization. Funding is under the Illinois Farm Bureau Nutrient Stewardship Program.

"Farmers are the original stewards of the land and we are committed to helping keep our waterways and lakes in Lake County healthy and thriving," he said.

Biochar will be introduced in 70 acres of the lakes focusing on key inlets, tributaries and storm drains that carry phosphorous and other nutrients into the lakes from farms and communities.

A "Field Day" event is planned July 19 on the shores of Lake Catherine to educate and connect with area farmers on the biochar project, he added.

Friends of Catherine and Channel Lakes also will be working with residents to install biochar on private docks to filter water around the perimeter of both lakes.

Littleton said her family bought a home on Lake Catherine in 2014 and organized the group as a labor of love.

"In 2015, we had these horrible algae blooms and I thought, 'What can we do?'" she said.

In partnership with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the group has monitored water quality in both lakes on a monthly basis for multiple seasons and will continue to measure and report on progress.

"There's no silver bullet," Littleton said. "These are all tools to try and make a difference."

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