Prairie Research Institute

Environmental Justice

Examining disparities in outcomes from weather, climate, and water-related hazards

In 2021, the federal Justice40 Initiative was launched to advance environmental justice and promote economic opportunities for disadvantaged communities that may experience disproportionate health, environmental, economic, and climate impacts. Forty percent of certain federal investments is earmarked for projects that qualify in helping to meet these goals, creating new opportunities for researchers.

At the Prairie Research Institute (PRI), environmental justice is emerging as a key concept that can be incorporated into nearly every project, said Sherilyn Williams-Stroud, structural geologist, who conducts Illinois State Geological Survey research projects.

“Whether a new technology is being deployed or if something will happen in the Earth below where people are living, we always need to look at the environmental justice aspect to determine if there are communities that will benefit or suffer from negative impacts,” Williams-Stroud said. PRI scientists are undertaking projects that address justice issues to ensure that environmental justice is an important part of what we do. This story focuses on some of the services and projects that address the effects of climate change, extreme weather, flooding, and poor water quality on disadvantaged communities.

hot sun on pavement with blurred car headlights in distance

Revealing inequities in extreme weather effects

Climate change and its impacts, such as frequent heat waves and tornados, happen everywhere, but those who bear the brunt of extreme weather frequently live in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

In urban areas, the higher temperatures from global warming, combined with the hot pavement and few green spaces, increase the risk of heat-related illnesses.

Common advice during a heat wave to protect those most vulnerable is to stay indoors with air conditioning or go to cooling centers. Health concerns are an issue when people living in urban and rural areas without the means to cool their homes have transportation challenges and can’t access cooling centers. Also, if cooling centers close in the late afternoon, community residents must find other accommodations at night when temperatures are still high.

Like heatwaves, tornados are becoming more frequent in a changing climate. Although it’s been said that tornados always seem to find a trailer park, it’s not true, Ford said. Tornados randomly occur in Illinois, but the impacts disproportionately affect residents of mobile homes because that’s where the vulnerability is, he said.

As the state spokesperson on weather and climate, Ford gives presentations to numerous groups in Illinois about climate change, most of whom are somewhat affluent, while also touching on environmental justice issues. “That topic gets the most eye-opening, lightbulb-on moments when you show how vulnerability can segregate itself, even between adjacent neighborhoods,” Ford said.

Seeking justice in flood mitigation

More frequent storms intensify with climate change, leading to higher risks of flooding, particularly in urban areas where stormwater can run off pavement, streets, and buildings. Staff in the Coordinated Hazard Assessment and Mapping Program (CHAMP) at the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) have spent decades studying floodplains, stormwater runoff, and ways to mitigate flooding at the community level. They’ve also delved into the issue of environmental justice to understand how low-income people and people of color have disproportionately suffered from flood losses.

Greg Byard, water resources engineer for CHAMP, explained that for some communities, injustice issues began when communities were developed. ISWS’ long-term records enable scientists to piece together flood histories of communities located along rivers and streams.

During the 1940s post-war era in Rockford, for example, families needed quick housing, so many homes were built in flood-prone areas. Flood after flood in the early 1900s didn’t dissuade communities from developing the land, particularly for people of color and low-income populations. Homes became dilapidated as flooding occurred, reducing the property values. Government agencies offered buyouts, but with the low value, residents couldn’t afford to move to less risky areas.

Byard and other staff have been working on a three-phase project for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which also includes PRI hydrology researchers and other departments at the University of Illinois. One project goal was to study the impacts of specific watershed stormwater-release rates and policies on disadvantaged communities.

The team quantified water detention storage using hydrologic modeling of future conditions comparing current watershed management ordinances with more restrictive options and any inequities of the management policies on low-income and minority communities.

One finding showed that while many disadvantaged neighborhoods were required to provide a marginally higher amount of water storage, they were also seeing the highest reduction in flood risk because of the policies, Byard said. Thus, some underserved communities were benefiting from local water management policies.

An approach to environmental justice issues in current and future research projects is to look beyond the goal of reducing flood risk to other impacts of water retention policies, such as stream erosion and sedimentation, that may have an adverse effect on disadvantaged groups and their environment.

“In the field of floodplain management, many of the early steps were dealing with the clear and present danger of flooding to humans in the built environment,” Byard said. “As we make progress on addressing the most immediate needs, now we can move to multi-objective flood management where we can consider optimizing the watershed system to meet a variety of management goals.”

The project report, “Watershed-Specific Release Rate Analysis Phase III, Cook County, Illinois” is available online.

water being poured into glass

Mitigating unfair access to community water treatment systems

Water from private wells can be contaminated with arsenic, bacteria, and other impurities. What’s more, the water isn’t treated and there are no federal or state standards for drinking water quality of private well water. Homeowners are on their own to ensure their water is safe, which can be costly, said Steve Wilson, groundwater hydrologist.

A few studies have found that many neighborhoods with high populations of those of low-income and people of color have not been served by community water treatment systems, while those in other areas have benefitted from the centralized service.

“There are cases like this all over the country where disadvantaged neighborhoods were never annexed because those in charge didn’t see the advantage of hooking these areas up to the centralized system, thinking that low-income people were less likely to pay for the service or for racist reasons or other motives,” Wilson said.

With funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), ISWS is beginning a five-year nationwide project that will ultimately help disadvantaged neighborhoods obtain financing to become connected to water treatment facilities in their communities. The project involves creating an interactive mapping tool for the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) to identify areas that use private wells near existing community water supplies with higher populations of people below the poverty line and minorities.

To start, the primary objective is to identify critical datasets for the project and compile the information to be used in the geographic information system (GIS) map, said Hideyuki Terashima, principal investigator of the project. Once they compile the data from all 50 states, they will select 10 states where the maps will be used.

Terashima expects that Illinois will be one of those states because the required data are readily available.

“These are areas where people have poor health outcomes because of where they live, and they don’t necessarily have someone advocating for them,” Wilson added. “This is an attempt to look at some of these areas and fix some issues.”

chemical test of drinking water

Testing well water quality in disadvantaged neighborhoods

In a similar project, ISWS researchers examined racial and economic disparities in private well water quality in the Chicago area and promoted good well stewardship to well owners. The team received $73,000 from the University of Illinois Chancellor’s Call to Action Research Program for the one-year project in collaboration with the U. of I. Extension and other departments on campus.

The team used GIS to plot all private wells known to exist in the southeast corner of Cook County, focusing on 12 villages, including Stager and Chicago Heights, and then overlapped that data with communities with a large prevalence of low-income and minority populations.

They also compared the water test results with state and federal drinking water standards, which are used for community systems, but not for private wells. Arsenic, a toxic heavy metal, is a concern in parts of Illinois that have naturally high levels, said Evan Rea, ISWS project principal investigator.

Of the nine water samples they received, only one sample had an arsenic concentration above the USEPA drinking water standard of 0.01 mg/L. Four are still untested for arsenic because of instrument issues.

Lead was detected in three water samples taken after the system had not been flushed for 8 hours, but the concentrations were less than the USEPA standard of 0.015 mg/L. No lead was detected in the flushed samples. These results suggest that some homes contain lead piping or solder, but with sufficient flushing, the lead will not contaminate the water, Rea said.

Total coliforms of bacteria, specifically E. coli, a strain that can cause illness, were also tested. These bacteria are indicators of potential fecal contamination, so it is important for well owners to know if bacteria are present in their water. Total coliforms were detected in three well samples, but none tested positive for E. coli.

Since total coliforms are a broad indicator, it is not necessarily cause for alarm, but measures such as disinfecting water faucets should be taken. Another test is usually recommended to confirm the presence or absence of these bacteria.

Bacteria growing on agar plate

Some samples had elevated concentrations of secondary chemicals that can affect the water’s taste, odor, or color. These chemicals are not generally considered to be harmful to human health. For example, seven of the nine samples had total dissolved solids greater than the 500 mg/L secondary standard, which can indicate high water hardness and/or mineral deposits, leading to discoloration and a salty taste. However, it is common to see high levels of total dissolved solids in well water due to minerals from the aquifer dissolving into the water.

Rea and the team will provide the well water testing results to study participants and share resources to mitigate any well problems resulting in poor water quality.

One important aspect of the study was to engage with the well owners, as well as local groups, community leaders, and local organizations to notify homeowners of the study and find participants, Rea said.

With so many resources related to private wells and expertise in all areas relating to water and weather, ISWS was well positioned to take on this task, Rea said. “What researchers in ISWS do now in terms of environmental justice is only a fraction of what we could do,” he said. “Probably every section of ISWS could devote whole projects just to investigating environmental justice issues because they touch everybody.”

Read more PRI 15th-anniversary stories.