iCAP Update: Preserving Land & Water

As a land-grant institution, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign has a responsibility to acknowledge the historical context in which it exists. We are currently on the lands of the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Peankashaw, Wea, Miami, Mascoutin, Odawa, Sauk, Mesquaki, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Chickasaw Nations. It is necessary for us to acknowledge these Native Nations and for us to work with them as we move forward as an institution with Native peoples at the core of our efforts.


The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is well past the halfway point from Illinois Climate Action Plan 2020 to iCAP 2025. It’s time to check in on each of the iCAP chapters to gauge progress, address the challenges our campus faces, and celebrate some achievements. This month, iSEE Communications Intern Gabe Lareau examines the Land & Water chapter to seewhat the university is doing to properly preserve its most valuable natural resources. View the full series >>>



Participants learn about the history and value of campus trees during aSustainability Month walking tour in October 2019.

Land and water are integral to our survival and have never been more threatened. Climate change exacerbates droughts and floods, groundwater is being rapidly depleted globally, and, according to Our World in Data, “tree loss in 2019 was 24 million hectares. That’s an area the size of the United Kingdom.”

Thankfully, on its little patch of prairie, the University of Illinois Land & Water iCAP Team is helping shepherd progress toward a more sustainable future where campus doesn’t just use its land and water resources, but actively cares for and replenishes them by reducing water consumption, increasing pollinator habitat, and continuing to plant native tree species across campus (to name a few initiatives).

Here are seven ways the University of Illinois is caring for land and water:


Reducing Water Consumption

As with any other resource, whenever water is wasted so is all of the energy (and therefore CO2) used in its extraction, distribution, and return to the waste system. However, water’s biggest carbon footprint revolves around how it’s heated. On campus, that heat comes from Abbott Power Plant, which runs on fossil fuels.

Therefore, reducing campus’ collective water consumption is paramount to not only preserving our potable resources, but also ensuring the success of the iCAP’s overarching goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In this regard, campus is staying on track.

The iCAP prescribes that campus “reduce potable water consumption to 721,500 kilogallons/year” by 2024 — a 45% reduction from 2008, which saw the university use more than 1.3 million kgal of potable water — enough to fill 2,563 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Fortunately, campus potable water use steadily declined between 2008 and 2021, despite a growing student population, with a low of 652,833 kgal — a reduction of almost 50 percent — used in 2021. That’s thanks in part to initiatives like University Housing’s decision to no longer use and wash dining trays, which saves 110,940 gallons a year and replacing plumbing fixtures with low-flow replacements.

Recent campus water use has ticked slightly upward (in 2023, usage was 40,000 kgal above the goal) — likely in part because of two straight drought years. It is a warning, however, that complacency in our individual habits and institutional practices can spell real consequences.

2024 is far from over, and if campus makes a concerted effort to reduce its consumption, the 721,500 kgal figure is reachable. It will take future initiatives, like a state policy that would allow using reclaimed municipal or industrial wastewater to irrigate the South Farms, for campus to continue seeing its water use decrease and carbon output diminish.


Our campus has improved the quality and quantity of its natural resources by implementing the Resilient Landscape Strategy as well as increasing the number of trees and pollinator-supportive landscapes on campus. However, continuing to plant cover crops and install green infrastructure across campus must increase to meet iCAP goals.

Designing Resilient Landscapes

In 2020, the latest iCAP posited five main suggestions for campus to have truly resilient landscapes. Resilient, in this case, meaning that the flora and fauna who live on the University of Illinois urban landscape will be able to better weather climate change’s effects.

The first recommendation from the iCAP was a Campus Landscape Master Plan, which was completed in 2022. When implemented, it will not only beautify and buttress campus with native, pollinator-friendly plantings, but also increase tree cover and overall permeable surface area.

Those pollinator-supportive plantings will be installed much more quickly, as five new grounds workers are set to be hired by Facilities & Services (F&S), according to Campus Landscape Architect and iCAP Team Chair Brent Lewis. An increased number of hands on the ground, potentially including two new tree surgeons on campus, satisfies another major recommendation to make campus lands more resilient — and community members safer. After all, a branch knocked loose from a major storm has less of a chance of falling on your head if tree crews can get to it first.

The last major recommendation for making campus more climate resilient is the writing of a Rainwater Management Plan — a process that started in February 2024 and will take the rest of the year, Lewis said. Farnsworth Group, a local architectural firm, will conduct an analysis that will survey where water pools most on campus and causes the most damage. Then, according to Lewis, campus will be able to determine ways to better absorb rainwater into the ground and use the water draining into storm sewers more efficiently.


Planting Trees

Perhaps no effort pays greater dividends to fight climate change than planting trees. Trees have myriad benefits — offering habitats for animals, providing shade in increasingly warm summers, and loosening soil, which increases rainwater uptake, to say nothing of literally sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. For free.

The iCAP 2020 prescribed that there be 1,500 additional trees on campus by the end of this year. Lewis and the Land & Water Team are right on track: “We’re planting 300 trees a year.” However, the ever-warming climate is causing problems for some of the new trees.

“The thing that’s been really hard is that in the past two years we’ve had droughts, and those droughts have killed off a bunch of trees,” Lewis said.

Nevertheless, each new cohort, 300-strong, continues to grow and sequester carbon.

Where exactly are all of these 300 trees a year going?

“The campus is a lot bigger than you think,” Lewis said. “I’m doing trees on the South Quad; I’m doing trees by the Bell Tower. I’m planting trees by Architecture on Lorado Taft Drive. One area that has always bothered me is that very open walkway south of Madigan Lab on Gregory Drive. We’re going to tree that whole thing.”

Planting random trees in random places does not do much for campus landscapes — a great deal of thought must be put into what kind of plantings are used. In a given area, “the industry standard is 30/20/10,” Lewis said, meaning that the ideal diversity of trees is “no more than 30% from one family, 20% from one genus, and 10% from one species.”

Lewis says campus is riding more of a 19/15/8. Not perfect — he pointed out that few municipalities are — but still better than many. If campus planted only a few types of trees, as many cities unwisely do, the entire population would be one pest or disease away from being wiped out. And, along with them, a natural carbon sink.


Three coneflowers grow beside the sidewalk.

Pollinator-friendly coneflowers grow near a campus sidewalk.

Increasing Pollinator Habitat

In 2018, the University of Illinois was officially certified as a “Bee Campus USA,” a designation awarded by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Becoming a “Bee Campus” involves feeding pollinators with native and biodiverse plants in adorably named but effective “Pollinator Pockets,” raising awareness in the local community, and ridding away pests with as few pesticides as possible.

While smaller in scale than some iCAP objectives, this remains one of the most important. Pollinators — bees, butterflies, even bats — are an integral, but threatened, pollination system that our food supply depends on.

According to Lewis, campus is looking to renew its annual certification as a “Bee Campus USA” — an easy task considering that there are 45 pollinator-supportive locations across campus, surpassing the 39 required in the iCAP by April 2024.

But climate action is not just about checking a box. It’s a continual transformation of habits, and the Land & Water team continues to look at possible locations as potential pollinator oases. During a recent meeting, the Team discussed the South Farms, specifically where the Embarras River crosses through the cropland. Lewis thought, “You know, maybe we should look at those corridors and see if we can get 30 acres of prairie in there.” On first impression, the College of ACES was amenable to the idea, he said. “I didn’t get any pushback.” Meeting minutes from the Land & Water Team identify the Department of Crop Sciences as a possible funder for a Prairie STRIPs project. If completed, it would “decrease erosion, pull pollutants out, and support pollinators,” according to the team.


Building Green Infrastructure

Beyond the beautiful landscapes, buzzing pollinator pockets, and thousands of trees, much of the campus is obviously still brick and mortar. When it rains, flat roofs and roads are unable to soak up the water, leading to flooding and, sometimes, extensive damage.

That is why Green Infrastructure is so important. Retrofitting the landscape with more permeable surfaces, ideally soil, can soak up the excess water. The Red Oak Rain Garden and the Illinois Street Residence Hall green roof are just two of the many examples of Green Infrastructure on campus. As of early spring 2024, 48 green infrastructure projects are active on campus, with another being installed by early summer, meaning we will reach our goal of 49 by the end of this year.


Planting Cover Crops

To increase their yields and protect their livelihoods, farmers enrich their crops with nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich fertilizers. These elements make their way into the water cycle and are eventually washed away and deposited into rivers — in the case of the South Farms, all the way to the Mississippi.

Why does this matter? Well, certain types of algae and phytoplankton thrive on these two elements and, when the resulting algal bloom dies, its decomposition sucks the oxygen out of the water — killing all life in the area. This phenomenon is the cause of the Gulf of Mexico’s annual summertime “Dead Zone” — a lifeless region fueled by fertilizer chemicals from midwestern farms.

Cover crops — flora planted in agricultural fields during the offseason — are integral to cutting off nitrogen and phosphorus from making their way into the Gulf and threatening its biodiversity. Like Green Infrastructure, keeping these plants as tenants during the winter ensures that farm soil stays permeable and the nitrogen and phosphorus are taken up as nutrients instead of washed away as waste. They may also help reduce erosion, keeping phosphorus-rich soil out of nearby water sources.

Planting cover crops on all 3,343 acres of the University’s South Farms, while technically possible, is not feasible. Some of the South Farms’ acreage, such as the 321-acre Energy Farm, houses experimental fields, and cover crops could be a confounding variable in an experiment. The good news, according to Lewis, is that the vast majority of the South Farms are cultivated for revenue, not research. Cover crops, by the way, can increase yields while also building soil organic matter — which can help increase water-holding capacity — and acts as a reservoir for nutrients.

The Department of Crop Sciences, which owns half the South Farms acreage, has 1,100 tillable acres of cropland in the South Farms, of which 18% have cover crops, per the Land & Water Team’s March 1 meeting minutes. The Department of Animal Sciences, which owns all but 5% of the rest of the South Farms, has cover crops on “13.6% plus or minus” of its land, Lewis said. While these are promising numbers for the South Farms’ two biggest occupants — and calculations are still being done to determine exact acreages — campus is likely still short of the iCAP’s 20% cover crop total.


Integrated Pest Management

The development of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan, if adopted campus-wide, would mean an environmental boon. IPM overlaps with nearly every Land & Water iCAP objective: The university tree canopy can’t increase if it keeps falling victim to invasive species, and eradicating pests leaves more room for pollinators to flourish.

For those who prefer to spray pesticide and call it a day, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a more holistic approach to managing the invasive insects and weeds that plague campus land. According to University of Illinois Extension, proper IPM “uses all available control practices such as crop rotation (changing what’s grown in a field), selecting resistant varieties (plants resistant to pests), mechanical cultivation, changing planting and harvesting times, biological control (using other living organisms to control pests), and chemical control.” It’s not just a spray and pray — using a variety of approaches prevents excess amounts of pesticides into the land and water.

Lewis is coordinating with the grounds departments from F&S, the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics (DIA), and Campus Recreation to finalize a coordinated Integrated Pest Management Plan. “It’s been interesting and is just something we need to tick off.” (Pun intention unknown.)