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A watershed moment at Midewin

Underground field tile MidewNational Tallgrass Prairie near Wilmingtis being dug up crushed so water no longer flows from site.

Underground field tile at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Wilmington is being dug up and crushed so water no longer flows from the site. | Cindy Cain~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 16, 2013 6:43AM



WILMINGTON — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Coca-Cola Americas President Steve Cahillane traveled to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County on Friday to announce a major watershed protection pact.

The two men signed a five-year memorandum of understanding while sitting under a tent in a remote Midewin field. The agreement will formalize a collaboration between the beverage company and the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service to replenish watersheds on federally owned land.

“The reality in Washington D.C. today is that we have fewer dollars to work with,” Vilsack said. “ ... So we’re committed to creating partnerships and looking for ways we can collaborate with Coca-Cola, with nonprofits, with local volunteers to expand these landscapes.”

Cahillane also pledged Friday that his company by 2020 would replenish 100 percent of the water it uses producing beverages. The company now replenishes only one-third of the water it uses, he said.

“We know that reaching this goal will be challenging,” he said. “But working with partners like the forest service, we believe we can and we will replenish every single drop of water that we use.”

Coca-Cola is concerned about water because it is used in every product the company produces, he said. And partnering with the forest service makes sense, he said, because half of the country’s water supply comes from forested lands. The forest service agreement is part of the company’s global effort in almost 100 countries to preserve water, Cahillane said.

Coca-Cola and the forest service already have collaborated on two water preservation projects in Colorado and California in 2012 and four more this year, including one at Midewin, an 18,500-acre federal prairie park near Wilmington that is managed by the forest service.

Work at Midewin involves removing old field tiles that take water away from the site and send it into Prairie Creek and ultimately the Kankakee River. Keeping water on site will replenish underground aquifers and support the prairie plants, said Wade Spang, Midewin’s prairie supervisor.

This year’s projects also include invasive weed control in California’s Angeles National Forest, and redirecting streams near Lake Michigan and in New Mexico to their natural flow.

So far, 500 million liters of water have been saved because of the 2012 projects, and Friday’s agreement should bring the total to a billion liters, Vilsack said.

Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability for Coca-Cola, said the company has provided $600,000 so far for forest service watershed projects.

Public-private partnerships that supply money to cash-strapped governmental entities are crucial to getting more environmental work done, said Lisa Bonnett, director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

“To see corporations embrace environmental protection, it shows you we’ve reached a point in society where it’s also important for businesses to be good environmental stewards because the consumer is requiring that,” she said.

State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, whose district includes a sliver of Midewin, said such partnerships are becoming more common.

“Many companies, they really take their social responsibility to heart,” she said. “And this is a perfect example of Coke seeing what they could do to give back.”

Will County Executive Larry Walsh, who is a farmer from Elwood, said water is important for the agricultural community, but it’s a resource everyone should work to protect.

“It’s the lifeblood of our communities,” he said.



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