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3 student projects shape healthier future of SIU's Campus Lake

CARBONDALE — In sickness and in health, Southern Illinois University’s Campus Lake brings people together.

When repeated algal blooms turned it into a stinky eyesore considered too toxic for human use, the university spent some $450,000 to partially drain the lake, and community volunteers turned out en masse to help clean the shorelines, where an excess of organic waste was feeding the algae.

Now that the lake is back to its former beauty, a coalition has formed to ensure it remains healthy for years to come.

It includes engineers, biologists, computer programmers, a chemist, an entrepreneurship expert and a campus recreation coordinator. At the center of it all is Marj Brooks, a freshwater ecologist who has monitored campus lake for about a decade.

This year, Brooks brought three groups of SIUC engineering students into the picture. To graduate, all engineering seniors must complete a capstone design project. And 16 of those students are working for Brooks.

The Southern File Photo 

Marjorie L. Brooks, Ph.D. in Biogeochemistry and Aquatic Ecology, is shown in the Zoology Laboratory in the Life Science II Building at SIU.

She is their “client,” and they are building new tools and technologies for the lake according to her specifications and her budget.

It’s a hands-on exercise in innovation, experimentation and professionalism: giving presentations, meeting deadlines and delivering a functioning product.

“It’s stressful because it’s hard to create something that you don’t fully understand at first, but it gives you that push to step outside of your comfort zone,” said Carlos Teran, one of the students. “Solve your problems, you’re an engineer, that’s what we do.”

The project, Brooks says, is unique in higher education. It’s collaborative, it builds professional skills, it puts students in the lead, and it gets the community involved, too.

As students refine their designs, Brooks is planning experiments to test their viability.

Her preliminary data has already shown solar-powered fountains can significantly reduce cyanobacteria, the scientific term for toxic blue-green algae.

That suggests students’ solutions could be used on other bodies of water that struggle with algae problems, Brooks said, like Carbondale’s Evergreen Reservoir.

Together with professor Scott Hamilton-Brehm, Brooks is also taking a closer look at the genetics and behavior of cyanobacteria, to better understand the global epidemic of harmful algal blooms, from local lakes to large stretches of ocean water.

“We’re exposing them to different levels of nutrients, aeration and temperature,” Brooks said, and “examining closely the mechanisms by which cyanobacteria produce toxins.”

She’s also leading a team of zoology students in planting a shoreline wetland on the south side of Campus Lake, providing a biodiverse and beautiful shield that will stop excess nutrients from flowing into the lake during rainstorms and nourishing cyanobacteria.

All that hard work has led to positive signs of a healthy lake.

For several years, Ami Ruffing, who oversees chemical safety on campus, has been testing the lake’s levels of microcystins, the toxic substances produced during algal blooms.

“This last year we had wonderful results,” Ruffing said. The World Health Organization’s recommendation for safe microcystin levels in recreational waters is anywhere under 10 parts per billion, Ruffing said. Before the clean-up, campus lake often exceeded that limit. But this year, the highest reading Ruffing got was well within the WHO guidelines.

The fish population is also thriving, testing shows.

Each fall, Greg Whitledge’s fish management class conducts a fish population density survey on the lake, using electrofishing — stunning fish in certain areas of the lake with minor electric shocks, in order to collect and count them.

Based on their findings, fish populations have “recovered on their own” since the drainage and cleanup, Whitledge said, as his students saw the same abundance of largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish and crappie that existed prior to the lake cleanup.

And people are returning to the lake, too.

“We’re very excited that the lake is looking a lot better, smelling a lot better, and is chemically much happier,” said Jeff Goelz, assistant director of sports and recreational services at SIUC.

Back are the Great Cardboard Boat Regatta, the Polar Plunge, and the beloved moonlight canoe rides. Boat rental will be available all summer, and Goelz expects to see students, staff and Southern Illinois residents out enjoying the walking and jogging trails.

“We’ve all teamed up to make the lake a priority,” Goelz said. “I encourage community and students to use it and enjoy it.”

With about $30,000 still available from the $60,165 that Brooks secured from the SIUC Green Fund, the next phase will be implementation, she said.

“We need arrays of these things,” Brooks said. Imagine a lakeside spin class, with every bike powering a pump. Or a canoe race, with families splashing through solar-powered fountains. Getting people out to play, Brooks said, will only multiply the effects of the project.

“People think of ourselves as being separate from the environment but we’re part of it,” Brooks said. “What’s good for the environment is good for us. When ecosystems thrive people thrive.”

Here's a look at the students' projects

The solar-powered fountain


Mychal Gibbens, a senior engineering student at SIU Carbondale, describes his group's solar-powered fountain design during a public presentation on Thursday at Morris Library.

Team: Ethan Harris, Joshua Sykes, Kurt Borgsmiller, Mohammad Irsheid, Mychal Gibbens, Nicholas Duitsman, Michael Cubley (advisor)

Harmful algal blooms hate aeration, and they hate cool water, Brooks explained. That’s the principle behind the student-led fountain projects.

Harris, Sykes, Borgsmiller, Irsheid, Gibbens and Duitsman have created a floating, solar-powered fountain that will aerate the lake while creating fun, splashy obstacles for boaters.

It’s an improvement on a solar fountain design created last year: lighter in weight, easier to put together, take apart and repair, and almost five times as powerful. Under strong sunlight, their fountain should circulate about 3,700 gallons of water per hour, Duitsman said.

By semester’s end, the group plans to complete four floating fountains. Ultimately, Brooks said, the fountains will serve as the starting and finish lines for a solar fountain obstacle course, with other, smaller fountains providing the obstacles in between.

“The obstacle course is a slam dunk,” Brooks said. “It will aerate and cool the lake, and provide a fun incentive for people to get out and enjoy the water, in boats and kayaks.”

The pedal-powered fountain

Gabriel Neely-Streit / GABRIEL NEELY-STREIT The Southern 

Jared Sims works on a pedal-powered fountain prototype for SIUC's Campus Lake with classmate Matt Lunde on Jan. 29, 2019.

Team: Dalton Cobb, Joseph Muschler, Matt Lunde, Jared Sims, Trey Hentis, James A. Mathias (advisor)

Cobb, Muschler, Lunde, Sims and Hentis are tasked with realizing the vision of SIUC Recreation Assistant Director Jeff Goelz: a stationary bike that powers a pump, providing a workout while also circulating and aerating the lakewater.

Last year, a group of industrial design students built an impressive prototype, Brooks said, but it had one big problem: It was “the ultimate thigh master workout,” far too difficult to pedal.

This time around, students carefully studied and tested gear ratios, pump types and frame designs, to create a model that’s sturdier, more portable and easier to use.

In warmer weather, the group will refine their prototype, making sure it pulls enough water from the depths of the lake to meet Brooks’ standards for water aeration and cooling.

Then, they’ll measure every component and create a precise 3D computer blueprint that will allow SIUC or any other builder to replicate the bike.

The plan is to build several, Brooks said, and place them strategically in the lake’s coves and inlets, where water often sits stagnant, with little circulation. Those areas, historically, have been hotbeds for toxic algae.

The lake health probe network

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Kang Chen (left), professor of electrical and computer engineering, and senior Carlos Teran review the presentation for the project to monitor temperatures in Campus Lake.

Team: Abdullah Abdulrahman, Alwalid Aljasham, Majid Aldhafeeri, Carlos Teran Rivero, Ryan Burns, Kang Chen (advisor)

Abdulrahman, Aljasham, Aldhafeeri, Teran and Burns are creating a network of pocket-sized computers that can track changes in the lake, like temperature, dissolved oxygen level or pH, and transmit that information back to SIUC, in real time.

The devices will float on buoys, protected from the elements by plastic cases, and they’ll be powered by solar panels.

They’ll allow Brooks to keep a constant eye on the lake’s health and the potential for harmful algae to reappear.

The project has been a boot camp in coding, the students said. With no wifi on the lake, the group must write code to teach the devices to communicate with each other.

Once the students build an effective network, SIUC will be able to add more sensors, to get a more complete picture of the lake’s condition. In the coming months, they’ll focus on teaching the devices to communicate better, and creating a computer program to visualize the data.

Trump, Pelosi stances on wall suggest deal will be difficult

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared Thursday that there'll be no "wall money" in any compromise border security deal as she and President Donald Trump signaled that congressional negotiators may never satisfy his demands for his cherished Southwest border proposal.

Trump, who in recent weeks has expressed indifference to whether the term "wall" or something else is used, clung with renewed tenacity to the word that became his campaign mantra, declaring, "A wall is a wall." Yet in a series of tweets and statements, he issued conflicting messages about what he'd need to declare victory and suggested that merely repairing existing structures along the boundary could be a major component of a triumph.

Amid signs that Trump's leverage in Congress is atrophying, he seemed to aim one tweet at his conservative followers. He wrote that Democrats "are not going to give money to build the DESPERATELY needed WALL. I've got you covered. Wall is already being built, I don't expect much help!"

Pelosi, D-Calif., left the door open for an accord that could finance some barriers, citing what she said was already existing "Normandy fencing" that blocks vehicles.

"If the president wants to call that a wall, he can call that a wall," she told reporters. She added: "Is there a place for enhanced fencing? Normandy fencing would work."

Yet Pelosi's other remark — "There's not going to be any wall money in the legislation" — underscored the linguistic battle underway. It also showed that Democrats see no reason to let Trump claim a win in a cause that stirs his hard-right voters and enrages liberals.

Trump's political muscle weakened following Democrats' capture of House control in the November election. It waned further after his surrender last week in ending a record 35-day partial government shutdown without getting a penny of the $5.7 billion he'd demanded to start building the wall.

In another sign of his flagging hold over lawmakers, the GOP-controlled Senate backed legislation on a 68-23 vote Thursday that opposes withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

When Trump folded on the shutdown, he agreed to reopen government until Feb. 15, giving lawmakers more time to craft a bipartisan border security compromise.

If there's no deal by then, Trump has threatened to revive the shutdown or declare a national emergency, which he claims would let him shift billions from unrelated military construction projects to erecting his wall. He criticized Democrats' negotiating stance so far, telling reporters in the Oval Office that Pelosi is "just playing games" and saying GOP bargainers are "wasting their time."

In an interview with The New York Times published Thursday night, Trump said he has "set the stage" to take action on his own.

"I'll continue to build the wall, and we'll get the wall finished," he added. "Now whether or not I declare a national emergency — that you'll see."

Democrats remain united against those tactics. Republican opposition seems nearly as strong, and GOP leaders are becoming increasingly assertive about publicly telegraphing those feelings to Trump.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters that "there are a lot of us that are trying to dissuade" Trump from declaring a national emergency should border security talks deadlock. Cornyn, a close adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said he has "absolute confidence" that such a declaration would be challenged in court, tying up the money, and said Congress might even vote to defy him.

"The president needs to know that before he heads down that path," Cornyn said.

No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Thune of South Dakota told reporters that "a lot of folks are uncomfortable" with an emergency declaration. 

Earlier this week, McConnell, R-Ky., a longtime opponent of shutdowns, called the move "government dysfunction which should be embarrassing to everyone on a bipartisan basis."

Lawmakers caution that if Trump declares an emergency, future Democratic presidents might do the same for issues they favor that Congress derails. Some are reluctant to cede Congress' constitutional power to control spending to any president, and many say there is no real border emergency.

Democrats offered further details of their border security plan Thursday, unveiling a measure that would provide no wall funds.

It would significantly boost spending for scanners at ports of entry, humanitarian aid for apprehended migrants, and new aircraft and ships to police the U.S.-Mexico border. It would freeze the number of border patrol agents and block any wall construction in wildlife refuges along the border.

Trump has been unpredictable in the shutdown debate, mixing softer rhetoric about a multifaceted approach to border security with campaign-style bluster about the wall. Lawmakers negotiating the bill are aware that he could quash an agreement at any time, plunging them back into crisis.

"Obviously, it makes it more challenging," Cornyn told reporters. "You keep talking and try to understand where he is and try to work it out."

Murphysboro man gets life in prison for killing his parents in 2017

MURPHYSBORO — A Murphysboro man convicted of murdering his parents will spend the rest of his life in prison.


Keith Ritcheson

Keith R. Ritcheson, 41, was sentenced Thursday by Judge Ralph Bloodworth for the Aug. 14, 2017, murders of his father and mother, Burl and Brenda Ritcheson, both of Murphysboro.

Ritcheson was convicted in September of first-degree murder after a three-day bench trial. In a bench trial, a judge decides guilt or innocence, rather than a jury.

Jackson County State’s Attorney Michael Carr said in a Thursday news release that evidence at trial established that Ritcheson developed a false timeline, telling authorities that he came home to find his parents both dead.

According to previous reporting by The Southern, Ritcheson called 911 on Aug. 14, 2017, telling the operator his parents were dead. He later told officers he believed someone entered through the garage to kill the couple. He later changed his story and admitted to investigators that he killed his father, but said his father had shot his mother.

“As the investigation developed, the theory provided by the defendant conflicted with the evidence,” the Thursday release says.

“When confronted by investigators, the defendant changed his story and ultimately admitted that he shot his father, but claimed his father shot his mother.”

The sentence imposed was mandatory, according to the release, because Ritcheson was convicted of first-degree murder of more than one victim.


Keith Ritcheson

breakingtop story
Illinois can follow other states’ lead to $15 minimum hourly wage

SPRINGFIELD — As it considers raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour, Illinois has a few examples to follow.

Wednesday, the Illinois Senate Labor Committee had a hearing on raising Illinois’ minimum wage from $8.25 to $15. There is no agreement on how long the transition would take, or if it should be done uniformly statewide.

Legislation could be sent to the Senate floor as early as next Wednesday.

Raising the minimum

This year began with 18 states having new, higher minimum wages.

Of those, eight wage increases were automatic cost-of-living adjustments. The other 10 were the result of specific legislation, according to the National Confederation of State Legislatures.

But only three states and Washington, D.C., have approved the significant jump to $15 an hour. And each of those states has done it differently.

Consider California, which was the first state to pass such legislation in 2016. There, it will take 6 years – by Jan. 1, 2022, for the statewide minimum hourly wage to reach $15.

The nation’s capital also passed legislation in 2016, with a slightly shorter timeline of four years.

New York, on the other hand, took a geographical approach. Passing its legislation in 2016, wages in New York City are already $15 an hour for businesses with 11 or more employees. By the end of 2019, that rate will extend to all businesses in New York City, while Long Island and Westchester County will have a $15 minimum wage by the end of 2021.

But in the rest of the state, the minimum wage will increase to only $12.50 an hour by the end of 2020.


Massachusetts is the most recent state to pass a $15-an-hour minimum wage. It’s plan, approved last year, takes 5 years to complete. The first increase – from $11 an hour to $12 – kicked in this year.

Andrew Farnitano helped lead the campaign to raise Massachusetts’ minimum wage - twice. The first time was in 2014, when his organization, RaiseUp Massachusetts, found success in legislation that increased the wage from $8 to $11 within three years.

Immediately after, Farnitano’s organization began campaigning for an increase to $15 an hour, succeeding in June 2018.

Farnitano says what happened after the first round of raises was the opposite of what many people and groups, especially business associations, expected.

“As the minimum wage went up, we saw massive job growth, a stronger economy, and the biggest drops in unemployment in the communities where the most people, some 30 or 40 percent of workers, benefitted from the increase,” Farnitano said.

Farnitano added that, rather than shutting down or downsizing, many employers had a hard time filling available positions.

“In Massachusetts, there’s places where low-wage workers can’t survive on $11 an hour,” Farnitano said, referencing 2017’s minimum wage. “So they move somewhere else, and then those businesses can’t find people to fill those jobs after.”

Christopher Carlozzi, state director for the Massachusetts branch of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, had competing arguments about the effects of a higher wage.

“Even though we’ve only done the first increase to $12 an hour, we’re already starting to see the effects,” Carlozzi said. “Directly after the new year, there was a string of restaurant closures in Boston itself [citing labor costs].

“We’re especially concerned about the areas outside Boston where you can’t charge $15 for a sandwich at lunch,” he said. “Businesses either have to raise their prices, start reducing workforce hours, or cut or not create new jobs.”

Making comparisons

There are no exceptions in the Massachusetts minimum wage law: In a few years, it will be $15 an hour for all employees, regardless of age, experience, or region.

Mark Grant, who heads the Illinois branch of NFIB and testified at Wednesday’s hearing, says Illinois cannot handle a universal minimum wage like Massachusetts.

“The Chicago region is a completely different kind of region than everything outside of it,” Grant said. “Our main concern is the businesses that are outside it – would they be able to deal with a $15 minimum?”

As such, Grant says Illinois would need a regional system like New York has, where different areas have different wage floors depending on many economic factors.

Grant also talked of keeping Illinois’ “teen wage” – a lower wage for teenage workers – which could lighten the load on small businesses having to adjust to higher wages.

Farnitano, however, said that one of the best parts of Massachusetts’ bill was not having a teen wage, so that “employers could not cycle through a new teen worker every six months.”

Another variable is to make different minimum wage timelines for different-sized businesses, which happened in California. There, the threshold is on businesses with 25 employees. Those with fewer than 25 have an extra year until the $15 rate kicks in, making a seven-year, which was a number floated during Wednesday’s Illinois Senate committee hearing.

There are also concessions that can be made to the business community, particularly small businesses.

Carlozzi discussed these concessions as part of a “grand bargain” in Massachusetts, where businesses were provided some relief to help accommodate higher labor costs. They included a statewide sales tax holiday, and elimination of time-and-a-half pay on Sundays.

Minimum wage hike likely

Though Grant’s organization, NFIB, is in “full opposition” to raising Illinois’ minimum wage to $15 an hour, he admits that it will likely happen.

“We have to be ready to negotiate,” Grant said. “The governor wants it, and he’s got a legislature that’s more than willing to help him do that.”

Illinois isn’t the only state considering a minimum wage increase. Thursday, the New Jersey Legislature passed $15-an-hour minimum-wage legislation, to be phased in over five years. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is expected to sign the bill.