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Last spring, the worst flooding in more than 25 years created havoc for farmers across much of Illinois, impacting more than 40 percent of the state’s population. Months before that, in a rare December outbreak, 27 tornadoes tore through parts of central and southern Illinois, destroying or damaging hundreds of homes, businesses and farms.

As extreme weather in Illinois has intensified and become more frequent, diverse audiences from farmers and landowners to homeowners, developers and local governments have relied on soil and water conservation districts to provide vital technical assistance on natural-resource issues.

Established more than 87 years ago in response to the devastating soil-erosion conditions brought on by the Dust Bowl, Illinois’ soil and water conservation districts are part of a nationwide network of independent, local non-tax-levying units of government that provide technical assistance and involve citizens in addressing issues related to soil conservation, water quality, nutrient management, sustainable land use and conservation education.

Each year, more 500,000 individuals benefit from their services -- from rural areas in central and southern Illinois to the most urban areas of Chicago. We help developers and suburban homeowners prevent flooding and reduce erosion. We advise farmers on the best conservation practices to improve yields, increase productivity and curb an estimated reduction of 90,000 tons of soil loss. We work with government officials on how to mitigate rainwater runoff and protect our streams, rivers and water supplies from dangerous levels of sediment, fertilizers, pesticides, debris and oil.

In recent years, soil and water conservation districts have become the “boots on the ground” in implementing the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. In 2015, groups as diverse as the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Sierra Club joined together with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Illinois Department of Agriculture to set benchmarks to reduce nutrient loss from rural, suburban and urban sources by at least 15 percent in 2025.

Nutrient loss is a serious problem that we should all be concerned about. Plants and animals need nutrients to survive, but it can be harmful when too much of those nutrients (namely, nitrogen and phosphorous) are carried in runoff from city streets and farm fields or flow out of wastewater-treatment plants.

Nutrient loss can have very real consequences for all of us. It can degrade our drinking-water supply, lower property values and threaten public health. The problem has become so bad that nutrients washed down the Mississippi River have created a dead zone that covers thousands of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico.

Soil and water conservation districts across Illinois have helped curb nutrient runoff in dramatic ways, preventing about 90 tons of nitrogen and 45 tons of phosphorus from reaching Illinois’ ditches, streams, lakes and rivers. While those numbers are impressive, there is still a lot more work to do.

Soil and water conservation districts are joining together with partners across the political spectrum and from diverse interest groups to support the Nutrient Loss Reduction Act (Senate Bill 3462), which provides funding and operational support for the implementation of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. In 2019, the state Senate voted unanimously to support the strategy, but to date, the state has provided little funding or tangible support to help reduce nutrient loss since the bipartisan strategy was proposed in 2015.

Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural residents, farmers and homeowners have come together to address this extraordinary problem. Soil and water conservation districts are proud to be on the front lines working to solve this challenge.

Our goal has always been to protect Illinois’ greatest assets -- our rich, fertile soils and water resources - and sustain the viability of our natural resources for future generations of landowners, homeowners and municipalities. But to address the urgent and growing threat posed by nutrient runoff, the state must do its part.

Clean water and healthy soils are too important to our future to wait any longer.

Steve Stierwalt is the president of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts and a family farmer from rural Champaign County near Sadorus.

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