Statement from Maxwell Webster, AFT Midwest Policy Manager: Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Third Biennial Report in Illinois
“We are extremely grateful for the continued collaboration of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and dozens of additional stakeholders to make progress on the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) in Illinois.
As the recently released third biennial report indicates, the NLRS has been enormously successful in bringing together diverse partnerships to invest millions of dollars in projects across the state. This group has brought forward a range of exciting research and innovative programs like the Fall Covers for Spring Savings Program. This has established a baseline that the state now needs to build upon to make substantial progress towards the goals of the strategy.
However, as the report also states, “much work remains.” Still, we find ourselves needing to make additional progress against the state’s nutrient loss reduction goals. This is despite a significant effort by farmers, stakeholders and partners and speaks to the scale of the challenge. That said, we know what we need to do and now is the time to get serious about investing in solutions that protect farmers and rural communities while safeguarding the environment.
While the downstream impacts of nutrient loss are well documented in the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Zone, what is less understood is that our lack of progress on nutrient loss goals has real impacts here in Illinois. Lack of progress towards the goals is an indicator of the poor health of many of our systems. It means stress on community drinking water systems and higher utility bills for communities. It means farmers are more susceptible to the devastating impacts of extreme weather. It means more challenges to public health and local economies.
As the report indicates, increased precipitation as the result of climate change drove increases in nutrient loads. We also know that the same farming practices that protect clean water and healthy soil build on farm resilience and reduce the impacts of climate change by lowering concentrations of excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The expansion of these practices is necessary to protect the state’s largest economic sector as well as the wellbeing of its communities. If we do not take steps now to respond to the new climate reality, all of the stressors from nutrient loss current faced by communities will not only become the norm, they will dramatically worsen over the next few decades.
Up until now, the state has not invested enough in tackling nutrient loss. Funding for crucial conservation programs and initiatives has not kept pace with the need over the past decade. As a result, farmers have not been able to enroll in critical conservation programs and Illinois has left millions of dollars on the table in federal match while routinely falling among the bottom for states in the region for investment from USDA conservation programs.
Additionally, neither the NLRS itself or guidance behind state water quality and conservation programs provide any mention of climate change or the need to update programs to be responsive to the new challenges posed by more frequent periods of extreme weather. This is despite the biennial report showing the climate and extreme precipitation are now a major driver of nutrient loss.
Expected action at the federal level has opened the door for a wave of new conservation resources to be made available to USDA conservation programs. If Illinois does not do more to attract these resources to the state, it is likely that it will miss out on this new opportunity to guide much need resources to farmers and rural communities.
That said, the authority for making progress on the NLRS falls on the state. The state is responsible for coordinating efforts when it comes to addressing nutrient loss. Since the adoption of the strategy in 2015, not enough in the way of adaptive management has occurred. State leaders must act now to direct programs to become more outcomes oriented and facilitate increased interagency cooperation in guiding resources to their highest and best use.
Now is the time for the state show its commitment to the strategy by establishing a long-term funding structure for conservation programs, expanding local conservation capacity, developing innovative partnership between farm service providers and integrating a strong climate response to support conservation initiatives and leverage outside investment into lands and communities.
Through this effort, Illinois can not only make real strides forwards towards its nutrient loss goals but it can be a global leader in climate-smart and regenerative agricultural practices that protect communities, clean water and the future of farming in the state.”
American Farmland Trust is the only national conservation organization dedicated to protecting farmland, promoting environmentally sound farming practices and keeping farmers on the land. Since 1980, AFT’s innovative work has helped to permanently protect more than 6.8 million acres of farmland and ranchland and led the way for the adoption of conservation practices on millions more. No Farms, No Food. Learn more at www.farmland.org.