Champaign takes step toward sustainable city

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A tractor tills the soil among wind turbines in Oklahoma on August 13, 2009. The California Ridge Wind Farm is currently being built in both Champaign and Vermilion Counties and will add to the reduction of carbon dioxide in Illinois. It is part of the city of Champaign's sustainability effort.

By Maisie Sackett / For — The city of Champaign has set a goal to be “a model for environmental sustainability.”

But it has found it is much easier to set the goal than reach it.

Among the challenges are limited budgets, shortage of community participation and debates over approaches.

“It’s a great goal, but we’re a long, long way from that,” said Lacey Rains Lowe who has been with the city six years and is now head of the Champaign Growing Greener Plan.

Setting the goals

The city plans to call for improvements to energy efficiency in city buildings and increasing the availability of recycling, among other programs.

To help City Council achieve these goals, the Planning Department of Champaign started the Champaign Growing Greener Plan about a year ago. The plan has been focusing on improvements towards energy efficiency in facility buildings, storm water run off, transportation and more.

Another priority of the city is recycling. While the program for single family recycling has been in place since 1993, a multi-family recycling program entitled, “Feed the Thing” was recently approved in 2010.

In addition, the California Ridge Wind Farm is part of the sustainability effort. Although not funded through the city, it is currently being built in both Champaign and Vermilion Counties and will add to the reduction of 4.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually in Illinois, according the American Wind Energy Association Illinois Fact Sheet.

But the Champaign Growing Greener Plan, the recycling program and the California Ridge Wind Farm are just three of the things that are helping the city toward its goal of increased sustainability and each are not without challenges.

Limited budget

For example, the Growing Greener Plan is working with a limited budget. It is funded through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, which is a federal grant that allocated the city $100,000 to create a plan for sustainability through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Lowes said that the grant administrator has specifically told them that the grant money is not for the implementation of a plan, but strictly for the creation of one.

“The first challenge is finalizing our plan, and then the next is figuring out how we’re going to implement it and is there any money to fund these programs,” said Lowes.

Low participation

The challenge for the recycling program is not with the budget – since it is a fee-based program – but rather how to motivate the people of Champaign to recycle. Only 53 percent of citizens in Champaign recycle, while in other communities the average rate is only about 35 percent.

The single family recycling program is free for all residents of Champaign, they just have to contact their waste hauler to arrange a pick up. The “Feed the Thing” program for multi-family recycling involves a $2.60 fee per residential unit to the property owner for participation in the program.


“Feed the Thing” Recycling Volume in Tons from 2011-2012
Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May Jun. Jul.
2011 68.05 68.45 84.54 87.80 94.08 78.71 73.38
2012 90.11 94.80 87.07 97.49 109.70 81.60 85.55


The “Feed the Thing” program has gone up each month when comparing the history of months in 2011 to 2012, as shown through data provided by Angela Adams, Recycling Coordinator of the city. Data is not yet available for 2012 past the month of July.

While the program is showing increased participation, it still has not reached the expected levels. When the program was approved in 2010, it had a goal of recycling 2,600 tons of waste each year. From December 2010 to December 2011 only 1,103 tons of waste were recycled.

Wind energy debates

The California Ridge Wind Farm is also not without its problems. Even though the wind farm would serve both a great economic and environmental benefit, there is still an issue with the wind farms killing wildlife, such as birds.

Birds killed by wind power are only responsible for three out of 100,000 bird deaths each year according to a survey done by the National Academy of Sciences in 2006. But that number adds up to about half a million birds that are killed by wind turbines each year, says the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although anywhere from five hundred million to a billion birds are killed annually due to human-made structures, the main concern with turbines are the federal laws that could be broken. These range anywhere from the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Acts, according to “A Summary and Comparison of Bird Mortality from Anthropogenic Causes with an Emphasis on Collision.”

“Some species may avoid areas that they would normally use once wind turbines are installed,” said Thomas Benson who holds a doctorate in environmental sciences and is an expert in Avian Ecology. “This generally isn’t a big concern for fairly common bird species, but is a concern for those that are recognized as conservation priorities.”

Increasing awareness

The Champaign Growing Greener Plan places an importance on awareness and empowerment. As Lowes put it, by reaching out, especially to the younger people in the community, that is when they will start to care about the issues. And once they care about it then they will help their parents become concerned with it as well.

Even then, it is not only caring about the issues that will make the difference, but also the willingness to make changes.

“If you’re asking people to do something that they are not going to stick with, that’s not sustainable either,” said Lowes. “We want to encourage people to make these changes on their own.”

As for increasing the participation in the recycling program, Champaign could look at Urbana. They have had the same program, U-CYCLE, since 1986 with steady involvement from the community. The Urbana recycling program is based on a thirty-dollar annual fee per household included in the property tax, said Courtney Rushforth, the Recycling Coordinator for Urbana.

Recycling participation rates in Urbana average at approximately 60% each year, according to Ms. Rushforth.

Bird deaths and issues to migratory paths due to wind turbines are issues that also can be helped. For starters having an Ecological Compliance Assessment Tool (Eco-CAT) Report to assess the location and ensure the wind farm will not have an adverse affect on birds is required in order to receive a building permit for the location.

The California Ridge Wind Farm had an Eco-CAT completed in 2009 although in their building permit application it was recommended that they have another report completed at a later date.

There are ways to avoid risk entirely by examining the site development to make sure it is not a site heavily populated by birds and migrating species. There are also design and operation procedures that can be made to the turbines such as placing power lines underground and shutting down turbines in seasons of high bird concentration, according to “Collisions, Electrocutions, and Next Steps” by Dr. Albert Manville.

Lowes said Champaign has been slow to embrace sustainability, but there is a benefit.

“I think all of us realize that we’re a little late to the party, so we’ve been able to assess what other people have done and are going to start making changes,” said Lowes.

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