Rural-urban watershed effort targets better soil and water quality

By Kay Shipman

Austen Etherton has seen the value of planting cover crops– value for both farmer and consumer. The Sangamon County Farm Bureau member and grain farmer has been growing cover crops for about seven seasons. Surrounded by fields he farms near Pawnee, he told participants at a recent nutrient stewardship field day he has found the learning curve to be steep but well worth the effort.

“We have planted rye annually during the summer and have seen a big difference in soil health. We have improved water filtration and have gotten a huge reduction in runoff,” he said. “That helps us and benefits the Lake Springfield Watershed and water quality for local communities.”

Illinois Farm Bureau partnered with Sangamon County Farm Bureau and local partners to share information about watershed protection opportunities with area farmers.

Springfield City Water, Light and Power (CWLP) is one of the organizations working with Farm Bureau and multiple funding sources to help solve soil health and water quality challenges. Protecting drinking water supplies in the watershed is a top priority, as about 170,000 farm acres are part of the Lake Springfield Watershed that serves 165,000 customers, including the approximately 115,000 people who live in Springfield, the largest city south of Interstate 80.

“Farmers using best management practices (BMPs) can reduce sediment and nutrient flow and prevent algal blooms. This is critical to our water supply and in meeting the goals of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS),” said Doug Brown, CWLP chief utility engineer.

To date, Brown said CWLP has invested about $8 million to protect the lake, slow water capacity loss and reduce finished water treatment costs.

Sarah Lindholm is the coordinator for CWLP’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The five-year program, which was authorized in the 2018 farm bill, is just underway in this particular watershed and includes $1.3 million in cost-share dollars and farmer education and outreach.

“We are focused on reducing erosion and nutrient input use and improving soil health and farm productivity,” said Lindholm. “We will protect water sources with the RCPP by helping fund conservation practices. We want to reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment runoff and soil erosion through BMPs like planting cover crops, increasing residue and managing tillage.”

Farmers also can enhance nutrient management through the addition of field borders and buffers, grass waterways and strips and other practices that filter runoff. Lindholm said farmers can apply for funding as they would other USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) programs, although no date for funding has been established yet. In the meantime, farmers can explore other options through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s 319 program or USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program.

The Sangamon County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) implements the voluntary 319 program.

“We want farmers to create a nutrient management plan and continue to increase the number of acres using BMPs to improve soil health practices and reduce tillage,” said Project Manager Barb Mendenhall. “CWLP has stepped up to the plate to help farmers over and over with incentive programs to make sure the watershed has pure, clean drinking water. Our goal is to get the watershed off of the Clean Water Act’s impaired waters list.”

“Better soil health leads to better water quality,” said Stacy Zuber, Illinois NRCS soil health specialist. “Farmers should start small and work their way up in making changes to help soil function to maximize cover, biodiversity and living roots and minimize disturbance.”

To learn more about their efforts through videos and other coverage from the virtual field day, visit IFB’s website.