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Cuts to soil and water conservation districts budgets could limit assistance to farmers

A photo of some of the fields, along with the family dog, outside of Benson where Scott and Reedy grow some of the various produce that's sold through Farm Family Foods.
Collin Schopp
Photo shows fields, along with the family dog, outside of Benson where Scott and Reedy grow some of the various produce sold through Farm Family Foods.

Soil and water conservation districts aren't high-profile agencies, but they fill an important niche in supporting Illinois agriculture. Major funding cuts in the new state budget may noticeably hamper those efforts.

The districts work with farmers to provide supplemental funding for expensive projects like erosion prevention, dam and reservoir maintenance and flood control.

But the new state budget slashes the district's administrative funding that goes toward office staffing and other costs, from $8.5 million to $4.5 million.

Peter Fandel, a professor at Illinois Central College and a farmer, said this financial assistance helps farmers, but the conservation efforts have a much broader impact beyond their own fields.

“When you address that conservation issue or erosion issue on your farm, you're kind of helping the general population anyway because a lot of that soil is not gonna be getting to the stream or the Illinois River or something else,” he said.

Karla Smith is the administrative coordinator at the Peoria County Soil and Water Conservation District. In her role, she monitors the district's funding, keeps budgets for projects and writes checks for contractors.

She said district offices are required to have a resource conservationist, but ideally should have one to two other employees. Losing those employees will limit the number of projects districts can complete each year, creating a gap in Illinois conservation efforts, she said.

“We’re the first people in line for conservation in our county,” she said. “People tend to come to us before they move on to the federal side. We help to protect the groundwater. There's a big push right now, to lower the nitrogen and phosphorus that comes out of fields. And so we help with that.”

Smith said payments from the state already are delayed, adding districts still have not received all the funding due from the previous fiscal year that ended June 30.

The Peoria county office, she said, gets money from a tax levy through the county as well as agreements with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Conservation Reserve Program. She said that will help fill some funding gaps, but not for all of Illinois' 97 districts that get support.

Climate change impact

Fandel said the work of these districts becomes more important as climate change contributes to more severe storms.

“You can tell that more storms are getting more violent, more intense,” he said. “When we get rainfall, instead of getting maybe a half an inch of rain, we might get three or four inches of rain within an hour.”

Conservation districts also work to prevent wind erosion that causes a weather event that has led to deadly crashes and road closures in the past year: dust storms.

“We've seen several examples over the last few years or have had some big dust storms over major interstates things like that, which again, people don't consider wind erosion as important as water erosion, but obviously I think that's coming more to the forefront,” Fandel said.

Fandel said limited staff also means districts will likely lose out on federal money that must be spent within a certain time frame,

“You're just losing out on those dollars completely,” he said. “They're going to somebody else or some other state or some other county, just because you don't have the staff to spend that money. It's a loss of revenue to the state, county or to help the farmers.”

Without the extra help, conservation projects could be delayed, done incorrectly or be more limited in scope, he said.

Michael Woods is the executive director of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts. He tells Illinois public radio station WGLT the association will push to get additional funding in the General Assembly's veto or lame duck session.

“I think we've got to make sure that we let all of our community members understand the importance of soil health and clean water,” he said. “And instead of taking those things for granted, we've lived in a state that has been robust and vibrant when it comes to the agricultural sector. And maybe we've taken those things for granted.”

The veto session begins Nov. 12. Woods said districts have support in the Illinois legislature, but have not received an explanation for why the funding was cut.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter and digital content director at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@illinoisstate.edu.