August 03, 2021

Guest column: Conservation programs combat effects of climate change

Climate change is one of the most pressing problems facing society today. Climate change can be attributed largely to the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and its effects are numerous and severe.

Climate change is obvious to most observers, but what is not always obvious is the detrimental effects that changing weather patterns have on our larger ecosystems far from the source. There are easy steps state government leaders can take right now in Illinois to curb some of the devastating yet preventable effects.

Most people don’t know it, but extreme weather affecting Chicago or a farm in Kane County can lead to environmental degradation thousands of miles away. In fact, pollution from Illinois has helped create a wildlife dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s how.

In recent years, record flooding and tornadoes have caused more erosion and pushed more runoff from city streets and wastewater treatment plants into our streams and rivers. That runoff includes excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) that destroy aquatic wildlife. Years of inaction to combat this problem in Illinois and states across the upper Midwest has led to a nutrient pollution build up at the bottom of the Mississippi River where no fish or wildlife live for thousands of square miles.

It’s an aquatic wildlife dead zone, all because of pollution in our neighborhoods and farms in Illinois. State government leaders can — and should — take tangible steps to solve the problem, but we don’t have time to waste.

In Illinois, conservationists and farmers across the state have come together to reduce nutrient loss, runoff, and its effect on the state’s food and water supply, but more must be done. A diverse coalition ranging from the Illinois Corngrowers and American Farmland Trust to the Illinois Environmental Council and Sierra Club are pushing the state legislature to get serious about solutions to this problem by promoting soil and water conservation programs outlined in Senate Bill 2474, the Illinois Partners for Nutrient Loss Reduction Act.

In 2015, the state took a momental step forward by creating the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy to identify ways to direct resources toward improving water quality in Illinois and downstream states along the Mississippi River. But since 2015, we have fallen dangerously behind the goals set to reduce nutrient loss.

To meet these important goals, the state must do more to reduce nutrient loss from erosion and runoff in the agriculture industry. One easy solution is by planting cover crops.

In 2019, the Illinois Department of Agriculture launched a pilot program called the Fall Covers for Spring Savings program to offer discounts to farmers who plant cover crops, a type of plant that is used in conservation and crop production practices that reduces nutrient leaching, soil loss, and runoff. Cover crops improve soil health, and healthy soil can store carbon dioxide with the potential to offset the effects of climate change.

The cover crop pilot program is widely popular and has been an overwhelming success, but it needs to be extended and expanded. This year, the program ran out of funds after only 12 hours, and the program only has enough funding to support farmers on 50,000 acres (less than 2 percent of Illinois’ farmland). That is a drop in the bucket in a state with 27 million acres of farmland.

That’s why the state legislature must act now to do more to promote cover crops and other conservation programs included in Senate Bill 2474. We simply cannot wait any longer to do everything we can to stave off the worst effects of climate change, and that includes getting serious about nutrient loss.

The investment is small, but the return for our environment is priceless.

Eliot Clay is the agriculture and water programs director at the Illinois Environmental Council, an organization advancing public policies that create healthy environments across Illinois.