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Water an Asset, not a Waste

Ray Mueller
FILE - Applied Ecological Services approaches projects in North America designed to protect water and soil in residential, agricultural, industrial, and urban settings.

OSHKOSH - “Meeting the needs of the present while not compromising the future” is how Steve Apfelbaum of Applied Ecological Services approaches projects in North America – more than 9,000 in his career – designed to protect water and soil in residential, agricultural, industrial, and urban settings.

In a presentation at the 23rd annual Toward Harmony with Nature sponsored by the Fox Valley chapter of Wild Ones, Apfelbaum deplored the common attitude and practice of considering water “as waste” and trying to export it as fast as possible from lots, fields, and other surfaces.

Not only does that result in significant direct costs but it also degrades soil and water quality, Apfelbaum stressed. In many settings, “I'd rather hear birds and bees than lawnmowers,” he added.

Even on his own property near Brodhead, Apfelbaum finds that many observers view it as “a weed patch until hunting season arrives.” He calls on other property owners to restore the diversity and dynamics that could eventually nourish hundreds of native species.

Natural resource losses

Settlement by Europeans has resulted in depletion of about 70 percent of the very beneficial organic matter that the soil in the United States once contained, Apfelbaum pointed out. Among other consequences has been “a loss in the nutritional value of foods grown in that depleted soil,” he indicated. “It's one big ecological circle.”

In trying to counteract that trend, Apfelbaum prescribes a “conservation development” attitude and approach for new or renovation projects for the sake of protecting the natural resources. He has been involved in projects near Milwaukee, north of Chicago, on the border of Madison and Shorewood Hills, and in Minneapolis, Toronto, and Asheville, NC which are serving that purpose.

Far too much land has been converted to asphalt lots and mowed lawns – 16 million acres from 1992 to 1997 alone, Apfelbaum stated. During the past 25 years, the volumes of conversion reached heights of 2 acres per hour in Denver, 1 acre per hour in St. Louis, and 500 acres per week in Atlanta while in the 1970s and 1980s the Chicago area land use increased by 70 percent compared to a population increase of only 4 percent.

Apfelbaum's goals include reducing the amount of land that is used for development projects while also enhancing the amount of open space within those projects for protecting or restoring the natural resources at the sites. Among the existing problems are natural lakes which are infested with salt in runoff waters, streams whose natural flow has been degraded, wetlands which are degraded due to soil erosion, the destabilization of river and lake shorelines, and woodlots whose natural replacement cycle has been overcome by invasive species.

Handling runoff water

Through his consulting on them, Apfelbaum's firm has addressed one or more of those concerns by reducing water runoff by 70 percent at the Prairie Crossing residential development in Illinois, reducing the cost by 25 percent and adding lot numbers while increasing the number of open acres by a multiple of four at the Laurel Springs project near Milwaukee, reducing the flood volume by 50 percent at the Shorewood Hills/Madison border without having to remove any residences, and placing rain gardens on many lots to limit the runoff in a 40,000 acre watershed at Asheville.

Based on the success on those projects, Apfelbaum questions the wisdom of local officials in Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, and Cincinnati who have decided to construct multi-billion dollar deep tunnels to handle stormwater runoff. He said that a comprehensive ecological approach would cost much less and reap far more benefits.

That even deep tunnels might not be adequate is shown by the major change in rainfall patterns during recent decades, Apfelbaum pointed out. He noted that during the past 30 years there have seven “100 year floods” and three “500 year floods” in the Mississippi River watershed alone.

Range of changes

Outside his realm of influence and direct involvement, Apfelbaum is noticing some changes that please him. He reported that in Wisconsin alone 18 golf courses have closed since 1985 and that coffee houses have begun to replace clubhouses as gathering places.

There is also trend away from shopping malls toward a restoration of Main Street along with providing better access to public transportation, Apfelbaum noted. He views those as “huge changes.”

Apfelbaum realizes, however, that what he advocates for conservation is still a distinct minority among all development projects. He asks the public to “make this point with developers, to support more wind and solar in those projects, and to help reduce energy demand.”

Apfelbaum can be reached by phone at (608) 897-8641 or by e-mail to