CHAMPAIGN — An effort by a coalition of local government agencies to get special federal protection for the Mahomet Aquifer  continued on Wednesday as officials explained that a "sole-source" designation is unlikely to affect most projects above the drinking water reservoir.
City officials convened a meeting to help interested parties understand what their pending application means and, maybe more importantly, build awareness of a "pristine" water source that stretches across central Illinois.
"It is the first step in a long journey to protecting our aquifer," Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is just beginning its review of an application to give the Mahomet Aquifer "sole-source" protection. If the application were approved, it would trigger an extra review of any project above the aquifer that is receiving federal funds.
"This is in no way trying to inhibit anything," Gerard said.
Some projects that trigger that extra federal review to ensure the water's safety often include public housing or transportation projects, said Bill Spaulding, the region's source water protection program manager for the EPA. But, in Region 5, no project has ever been shut down as a result of that review.
"The vast majority of projects are not affected," he said.
However, the EPA has in a limited number of cases requested that a project be tweaked to ensure that the sole-source aquifer is not affected. The agency has the ability to deny the project's federal funding — although that step has never been taken in the six-state Great Lakes region, and even if it were, the project may continue without that federal funding.
"If this is only funded through private sources or state sources or local sources, this does not apply," Spaulding said.
The sole-source review, he said, is really a safety net for the aquifer to ensure that a project on the surface will not affect the water source buried underneath.
"It's just another check to make sure that step isn't overlooked," Spaulding said.
According to Spaulding, EPA has approved 77 sole-source aquifers across the country.
Ed Mehnert, a geohydrologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey, attended Wednesday's meeting. He said he was mostly curious about the procedure for the sole-source review.
One of the main things he heard was that the public awareness that comes with the process can do more than the special designation itself.
"To protect the aquifer, a sole-source aquifer designation does a limited job," Mehnert said. "But to really protect an aquifer, you need an active local group."