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Argonne improves water clarity in local waterway

The water that Argonne National Laboratory discharges into the Sawmill Creek, a local waterway that flows through the laboratory site, is clearer than the water that enters the campus from upstream.

By Diana Anderson, Writer/Editor, Argonne National Laboratory

The water that Argonne National Laboratory discharges into the Sawmill Creek, a local waterway that flows through the laboratory site, is clearer than the water that enters the campus from upstream. Water clarity can be determined through “turbidity” — a water quality parameter that’s monitored by the Illinois and U.S. Environmental Protection Agencies. Turbidity is a measure of solid particles in the water, including soil, metal fragments, organic materials, waste products and so on.

Environmental Engineer Peter Lynch heads water pollution control at Argonne’s 1,500 acre laboratory site and he regularly monitors the quality of surface water. “The lab’s not using water from the creek itself,” said Lynch. “The water we use comes from two sources, depending on its use at the lab, and we returned treated water to the Sawmill Creek after we’re done with it.”

The lab uses City of Chicago water for domestic uses — drinking, washrooms, sinks, fire protection and general laboratory use — and water from the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal for industrial purposes such as cooling and steam production. The laboratory’s accelerators and computing facilities, for example, use water in cooling towers. All water used at Argonne is eventually treated on site to remove any potentially harmful contaminants so it can be discharged into the Sawmill Creek with no impact to the ecological health of the creek. In 2011, the lab discharged on average 740,000 gallons of treated water per day.

“Argonne’s discharged water is better that EPA water quality standards,” said Lynch. “What we discharge, in terms of volume, is also significantly lower than what surrounding communities and municipalities discharge.”

In recent years, Argonne has installed several closed-loop water cooling systems in place of once-through systems. “Argonne’s Sustainability Program identifies once-through systems that can be converted to closed-loop systems so cooling water can be used over and over again instead of using it once and dumping it,” said Lynch.

Closed-loop water cooling systems save money and electricity and they help contribute to the health of nearby waterway systems. “Too much water in streams can be a bad thing,” said Lynch. “There’s a balance that needs to be maintained in nature and our ecosystem. If you’re discharging too much water — even clean water — it’s more than the stream can handle. Detrimental effects can ripple, including impacts on wildlife and erosion along the streambed. By reusing water, we’re discharging less, and this helps maintain the health of our local waterways.”

Preservation of the quality of local waterways supports Argonne’s commitment to sustainability and responsible environmental stewardship. Argonne’s 2011 Site Environmental Report  and additional information about Argonne's Sustainability efforts are available online.

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