Spring Showers Call for Flood Protection, not Another Bad Project


E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune / MCT / Landov

If there’s one thing this spring and early summer have taught us, it’s that severe storms and heavy rainfall have become frequent occurrences in Illinois. Risks to flood-prone communities are at an all time high, and flood protection measures are needed now more than ever. One method of flood relief that dozens of communities rely on for protection is the New Madrid Floodway, which connects the Mississippi River to its floodplain. The town of Cairo, Illinois learned just how important this Floodway is during a major flood in 2011 when the Army Corps blasted a hole in the Birds Points Levee to flood the floodplain and save the town from devastating damage. The use of the Floodway allowed water levels in Cairo to drop 2.7 feet in just 48 hours. The need for timely use of the Floodway was proven again during another flood in 2011 when a delay in its activation led to the destruction of 50 homes in Olive Branch, Illinois.

Despite overwhelming evidence of its importance, the Army Corps has proposed a project that would make it more difficult to use the Floodway for flood relief. This project—called the St. John’s Bayou-New Madrid Floodway project— would waste tax dollars, put communities at risk and cause irreparable damage to the environment. Many of our members and partners have fought the project since soon after it was first added to the Corp’s project list in 1954, and continue to make efforts to stop the project for good. The project proposal includes the construction of a 60-foot high, quarter mile long levee and two large pumping plants along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. It would close the last 1,500 feet of floodplain connection at the south end of the New Madrid Floodway, destroying critical wetland habitat and interfering with emergency flood protection measures.

The New Madrid Project intends to allow increased development and agriculture in the Floodway, where a group of southeast Missouri farmers own land. The project would cost taxpayers $165 million while only benefitting this small set of landowners and putting Illinois communities at a greater risk of catastrophic flooding, especially in minority and low income communities. Intensifying crop production and other land usage would make it even harder to use the Floodway for needed flood relief in time to prevent disastrous effects. As Cairo Mayor Tyrone Coleman says, “This project risks the lives and livelihoods of thousands to secure financial gains for a few.”

The New Madrid Floodway not only protects communities from flooding, but it also provides vital fish and wildlife habitat and is an essential connection between the Mississippi River and its backwater floodplain. This critical part of the Mississippi River ecosystem allows the regular exchange of water, nutrients, and energy that support the plant and animal life in this unique area. The New Madrid Levee would drain more than 53,000 acres of wetlands, causing the greatest loss of wetlands function in EPA Region 7’s history. It would also destroy some of the most important fisheries habitat in the Mississippi and cause irretrievable losses of nationally significant fish and wildlife resources.

Despite a 2007 ruling by a federal judge to stop the project and tear down parts of it that had already been constructed, recent funding availability has put this project back on the table. The Environmental Protection Agency has the power to stop the project once and for all through a veto under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act due to its unacceptable adverse impacts. The EPA must veto this project to save taxpayer dollars, protect Mississippi River communities and preserve vital habitat and resources. Congress would have to appropriate construction funds for the project, giving our legislators the chance to stop this expensive project from moving forward if approved. To ensure this happens, we need leaders like Governor Rauner and Senator Durbin to take a stand for Illinois and against the St. John’s Bayou—New Madrid Levee Project.

Bobcats in the Crosshairs Once Again

bobcat_kitten_posingOn May 31st HB352, a bill to allow bobcat hunting in Illinois returned to the House for a vote on concurrence. We opposed the bill as written and asked the Department  to include in the legislation provisions for 1) the development of a management and sustainability plan based on scientific studies, including a recovery plan for continued growth of bobcat populations and return of stable populations into all prime bobcat habitat areas statewide; and 2) limits to the areas of the state where bobcat hunting permits could be granted.

Instead, the Department came back with a weak, one-sentence amendment stating that the harvest of bobcats in this state shall be non-detrimental as defined by federal regulations and as determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, the federal regulations do not call for a science-based management and sustainability plan, but rather a population estimate based on animals killed.

We will continue to oppose a bobcat-hunting program in Illinois until:

  • Scientific evidence exists that there is a need for reducing bobcat numbers.
  • The Illinois Department of Natural Resources develops a management and sustainability plan based on scientific studies, including a recovery plan for continued growth of bobcat populations and return of stable populations into all prime bobcat habitat areas statewide.
  • The State can demonstrate that the meager $5 permit fee would completely cover the cost of operating the program.

No Need

The primary reason lawmakers give as to why bobcat hunting is needed in Illinois is that bobcats are a nuisance. Yet, there is absolutely no empirical evidence to back that up. We’ve heard from supporters of the bill that bobcats kill livestock and are decimating the deer and turkey populations. We’ve even heard that bobcats weigh 60 pounds and stalk small children! But, the truth is:

In 2013 only 9 nuisance permits were issued and in 2013 only 3 were issued. Bobcats’ preferred diet is rabbits, voles and squirrels. In necropsy studies looking at the stomach contents of dead bobcats, researchers have rarely found deer. Scientists further speculate that the limited deer that bobcats do consume is carrion deer, that is dead deer that bobcats find during hunting season or roadkill deer. Additionally, few birds were found in necropsy investigations, and those that were found were primarily songbirds–not game birds, such as turkey.

A large male bobcat can reach 30 to 35 pounds, with females weighing in much less. Bobcats are shy, secretive creatures that do not have any interest in being near or stalking people.

Lack of Science-based Management Plan

 Illinois Department of Natural Resources does not have a management or sustainability plan in place for bobcats and most of the related research has been conducted in the southern region of Illinois, south of I-64.  There is tremendous concern that this plan does not take into account ecological science for best practices for bobcat protection in Illinois at a statewide level.

Without a proper, scientific management and sustainability plan the wildlife code should NOT be amended to allow the removal of the prohibition of taking bobcats. This species needs to remain protected to prevent it from being added to the threatened list again.

Cost to State

 The bill states that the fee, if any, for a permit to hunt or trap a bobcat will not exceed $5. We question how this low fee can even come close to covering the costs to the Department of Natural Resources of running the program. How can Governor Rauner justify signing HB352, which will cost the state money, at the same time he has announced that State Museums will be closed and programs like OSLAD will not receive funding?

Ask Governor Rauner to do the right thing for Illinois – VETO HB352.

Illinois Residents Urge Senator Kirk to be a Clean Energy Champ

Alex delivering the signed plate and the report to Senator Kirk's office

Alex delivering the signed plate and the report to Senator Kirk’s office

We don’t typically head to legislators’ offices with sports gear in hand, but we rounded the bases to Senator Mark Kirk’s offices in Springfield and Chicago last week with a baseball plate in hand.

With baseball season and Congress in full swing, the Sierra Club has released “Scouting the 114th Congress: Polluters Are Out Of Their League,” a new baseball-themed report examining how this Congress has performed so far this season. The new report evaluates select Senators on twelve votes, co-sponsorship and other actions taken so far in the 114th Congress, including key votes on climate action, clean energy, energy efficiency and clean air. The selected Senators include those leading the team on these issues, those leading the opposition, and those Senators that are on the radar, having yet to sign-on fully with one team or another.

In the new Scouting Report, Senators were divided into teams based on their records:

  • The Fossil Fools, sponsored by big polluters and going to bat for dirty fuels, dirty air, and dirty water every chance they get;
  • The Clean Air Aces, who are lining up with the American public to score for clean energy, clean air, and climate action that families and communities deserve;
  • And finally, those players that are on the radar, who aren’t in either team’s dugout just yet.

We visited Senator Kirk’s office because he’s a senator that is “on the radar,” and we’re hoping to draft him to be a Clean Air Ace like Senator Dick Durbin. We brought along the scouting report, baseball cards, and a home plate full of signatures looking for Senator Kirk to step up to the plate for clean energy.

Senator Kirk voted right on important amendments this year acknowledging that humans are significantly contributing to climate change and that our national security is threatened by the climate crisis. However, Senator Kirk stopped short of supporting climate action and even supported an attack on the Clean Power Plan.

His support for clean energy is more important than ever with news that Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) was recently joined by a handful of others in introducing legislation that would gut the Clean Power Plan — the Obama Administration’s plan to limit carbon pollution from power plants for the first time ever. Capito’s bill specifically amends the Clean Air Act to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from ever taking steps to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants. If Senator Kirk supports Sen. Capito’s toxic bill, it could be disastrous for climate solutions.

Illinois is ready to tackle the climate crisis and grow clean energy jobs in our state. We have a tremendous opportunity to achieve both those goals with the Illinois Clean Jobs Bill in the state legislature this year. It is more important than ever – for Illinois’ economy and our future – that Senator Kirk stands firmly with the Clean Air Aces and supports clean energy.

Check out the report, the baseball cards, and the results here.

Legislation Outlawing Invasive Weeds Heads To Governor

The Illinois General Assembly has sent Senate Bill 681, which would ban the sale or distribution of eight species of invasive plants, to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner for his signature.

“Exotic invasive plants threaten to overrun Illinois forests, wetlands, and prairies if we don’t take steps to keep them out,” said Terri Treacy, Springfield Representative for the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter.  “This important update to the Exotic Weed Act will help ensure Illinois is doing what we can to respond to the threats posed by these invasive plants.”

Exotic weeds are plants that are not native to North America and when introduced, spread aggressively. Since these plants are in a new environment, free from the natural predators, parasites, or competitors of their native habitats, they often grow to have very high population sizes and densities. These large populations can out-compete and displace native species, degrade natural communities, reduce wildlife food and habitat, disrupt vital ecosystem functions, cause economic damage to agriculture, and reduce the value of fish and wildlife habitat.

“The spread of alien invasives is a growing threat to Illinois’ natural heritage, and to our agricultural economy,” said State Senator Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), lead sponsor of SB681.  “Now we can better protect Illinois from harm by preventing the spread of these invasive weeds.”

SB 681 was sponsored in the Illinois House by State Representative Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg).  In 2003 Phelps led efforts prohibit several species under the Exotic Weed Act, including kudzu and non-native species of buckthorn.

The existing Exotic Weed Act prohibits the sale or distribution of plant seeds, plants or plant parts of exotic weeds without a permit issued by the Department of Natural Resources. SB 681 amends the Exotic Weed Act by adding new exotic weeds, including exotic species of bush honeysuckle, olive, salt cedar, poison hemlock, giant hogweed, Oriental bittersweet, teasel and knotweed. SB 681 is supported by the Illinois Invasive Plant Species Council, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“The plant and tree species that end up on this banned list have been thoroughly evaluated utilizing sound science and taking into consideration the potential economic impact of removing them from the marketplace,” Joe Khayyat, Illinois Green Industry Association Executive Director, said. “The plants added to the Exotic Weed List by this legislation were a result of this collaborative process – a process that is good for growers and purveyors of plant and tree material, small business owners across the state and ultimately future generations that will call Illinois their home.”

The General Assembly is also considering Senate Joint Resolution 9, which permanently designates May as Invasive Species Awareness Month. Each May for the last five years, organizations, agencies, and groups from across Illinois have teamed up to organize events that raise awareness of the negative impacts of invasive species on Illinois’ landscape and economy.  This year is no exception with over 160 educational events taking place this month.  SJR 9, sponsored by State Senator Bill Haine (D-Alton) and State Representative Deb Conroy (D-Glen Ellyn) has been approved by the Illinois Senate, and awaits approval by the Illinois House.

Want Open Space and Smart Transit? Take the IDOT Survey

Biker on Kinzie Street in Chicago. Photo by MichelleBikeWalkLincolnPark.

Biker on Kinzie Street in Chicago. Photo by MichelleBikeWalkLincolnPark.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is circulating a short survey soliciting public input on Illinois’ transportation investment priorities.  This is an important opportunity to let the state know that we want smart investments in transit, existing roads and bridges, and open space.  Click here to fill out the survey, and be sure to comment on locally needed repairs to existing infrastructure and promote the local transit and bike path projects proposed in your community in Box 4!

Our Overall Message:

The State of Illinois should invest in transit and our existing transportation infrastructure.  Public transportation and rail investments are powerful job creators, and help reduce our energy consumption.  Our existing roads and bridges should be our top priority for any highway projects.

The State should invest in a network of natural open space and waterways that will enhance parks and forest preserves, benefit wildlife habitat, expand recreational opportunities and generate economic return.  In 2014, The Trust for Public Land found that every $1 investment in parks and natural resources returns $4 in economic value.  Historically, state investments to protect the great outdoors have been funded through major capital initiatives.  Our last two capital bills created and funded the Illinois Open Land Trust, and those dollars were used to help protect our water supply and special places in our state.  Illinois’ next capital bill must also invest in the Open Land Trust if we are to save Illinois’ last special places.

What We Don’t Want:

Illinois should reject wasteful new projects that drain resources away from projects that will serve more citizens at lower cost.  We cannot afford to waste precious public dollars on boondoggles like the Illiana Expressway proposal in Will County, Rt 53 in Lake County, and I-66 in Southern Illinois, or the Peotone Airport.
Please take a moment to promote smart transit investments by filling out this survey. Be sure to include some of the above talking points in Box 4 of the survey, and personalize with your own local message.

Hundreds Rally in Springfield for Clean Jobs and Climate Action

CDNe8gwWgAAVhyX.jpg_largeOn April 22, hundreds of citizens from across the state descended on the Capitol in Springfield to celebrate Earth Day. The Sierra Club partnered with dozens of allies to hold the 2015 Environmental Earth Day Rally and Lobby Day. Some of the biggest successes of the day were:

– 500 citizen activists marching for clean energy and the climate
– 4 new co-sponsors added to the Illinois Clean Jobs bill that day, and many more in the days since!
– 800+ hand-written letters delivered to legislators
– 1000+ petitions delivered to legislators
– Our hash tag #CleanJobsIL trended on twitter in Illinois
– Dozens of press hits including some great television coverage
Crowd-cheering resizedThe main event was a huge rally on the Capitol steps in support of the Illinois Clean Jobs legislation. Emceed by Pastor Booker Vance, Policy Director at Faith in Place, the rally featured inspiring speeches from our bi-partisan bills’ chief sponsors in the Senate and House as well as many of our co-sponsors. Also on the speaker lineup was Jack Darin, Sierra Club Illinois Chapter Director; Michele Knox, owner, Wind Solar USA; Laura Asher, mom and Chair of Piasa Palisades Group Sierra Club; and high school junior at Northside Prep in Chicago, Maria Sanchez.
Between the rousing and impassioned speeches, rally participants, clad in green t-shirts and carrying colorful signs, kept things energized with spirited chants demanding Clean Jobs and Climate Action NOW! Meanwhile, the Solar Beatz van kept the tunes rolling and the microphones amplified all with the power of the sun.

The Illinois Clean Jobs Bill:

– prioritizes energy efficiency to save consumers money while creating thousands of new jobs;
– ramps up renewable energy from the sun and wind, also creating new jobs;
– authorizes the Illinois Environemental Protection Agency to develop market mechanisms to limit carbon pollution.

The benefits from the Clean Jobs bill will be immense: 32,000 new clean energy jobs each year, consumer savings, improved public health, and greater climate stability. For more information about the Clean Job bill visit the Clean Jobs Coalition website.

For more press about the rally and the Clean Jobs Bill, see:

WCIA-TV Springfield (IL) – Earth Day protestors call for Clean Jobs Bill

WAND-TV Springfield (IL) – Supporters Rally for Illinois Clean Jobs Bill

“Right to Work” Is Wrong For Our Future

All of us who breathe the air, drink the water, and hope for a healthy future for our kids and grandchildren have a lot at stake in Illinois’ debate over Right to Work. The right of workers to organize is not only important for individual workers to earn a living wage and be treated fairly by employers, it also protects and strengthens our communities.

Workers are our first line of defense against toxic pollution, chemical spills, and other accidents that can devastate communities. Union workers are more likely to receive the training necessary to deal the health and safety risks of hazardous chemicals. A union can offer protection and job security to an employee who might blow the whistle on hazards and accidents in the workplace, or who might report illegal pollution or dangerous conditions. Too many workers without the protection of a union are forced to handle toxic chemicals without proper safeguards, and stay quiet for fear of losing their job. Don’t we all want the workers at the factory or power plant near our neighborhood, school, or workplace to know they can speak up when they see danger?

Right to work is primarily a tactic to lower wages, and pollution thrives on poverty. Families living on low wages are more likely to live with increased air and water pollution than those earning a living wage. Low-income households are more likely to have a child or family member who suffers from asthma or other illness made worse by pollution, and less likely to have access to quality healthcare to treat these problems. People struggling to survive on poverty wages are less empowered to seek justice when their communities are threatened. That’s how poverty attracts pollution, and environmental injustice occurs. Everyone wants clean air, clean water, safe open spaces, and a better future for their families. However, you can’t have a voice in the fight for our future if low wages force you to focus on putting food on the table. Unions help workers stand together for better wages and health care, and in the process empower citizens to stand up to protect their health and families.

Unions also empower workers to speak and act collectively about the major issues of our time. When it comes to confronting the threat of climate change, and seizing the opportunities of the clean energy economy, organized workers can play a pivotal role in creating new jobs in renewable energy and conservation and thus reducing the pollution that threatens our health and our future. In moving to the cleaner energy sources of the future, we must also ensure a just transition for workers in the old energy sector. To make that transition work for all of us, we count on unions to participate in creating the policies that will bring us the future we all want.

Let’s support the rights of our fellow citizens to organize and form unions – our future may very well depend on it.