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Soil and water conservation districts leader sees budget cut as a call to action

A soybean field is visible from inside a combine during harvest. A man's face is blurred in the foreground.
Joshua A. Bickel
A soybean field is visible as Doug Downs drives his combine during harvest in October 2023 near Allerton. Downs has tried to incorporate cover crops into some of his operations, especially to control weeds.

One stakeholder says he fears intergenerational harm if a recent budget cut to Illinois' soil and water conservation districts isn't remedied.

The new state budget includes a $4 million, or nearly 50%, cut to operating funds for Illinois soil and water conservation districts. That's the money used to pay experts and other front-line staff who advise farmers and other property owners about conservation practices, like cover crops and no-till farming, and help them access federal or state cost-share funds to implement them. The intergenerational harm comes because many of those projects take years to complete.

“Our conservation district efforts directly align with the governor’s mission of being climate smart, ecologically sound, and environmentally resilient. And so we hope that we are able to find a path forward to get these funds re-established in the coming months,” said Michael Woods, executive director of the Association of Illinois Soil & Water Conservation Districts.

It’s a timely issue. Soil conservation is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of dust storms, which have caused deadly crashes and closures along Central Illinois interstates in the past year.

“We recognize that the state government has various competing sources on limited resources, but we also believe that soil and water conservation is essential going forward. We’re continuing to see things like dust storms. If we lose out on having that front-line, boots on the ground staff, then we are also going to reduce the amount of conservation we can put on the ground,” Woods said.

There are 97 soil and water conservation districts around Illinois, with over 200 employees, adjusting their focus to meet their area’s needs. It’s a misconception that they only serve rural communities; in the more urban northeastern Illinois, for example, Woods said they work more on wetlands, waterways and urban agriculture initiatives.

“In [the] southern part of Illinois, much of our SWCDs may focus on forestry or the rolling hills in the lands and providing cover crops and looking at waterways and buffer strips and so forth. Whereas in the central part we’re a bit flatter… so distinctively across the state it will vary; it's not like they only serve our farming community,” he said.

Breakdown during budget negotiations

Despite that impact, they came out on the losing side of this year’s difficult budget negotiations.

“We don't know where the breakdown happened. It's a confusing process,” Woods said. “We hope that we can maybe get the current administration to look at a supplemental budget in the veto session or the lame duck session. We know there's a significant amount of support from our legislators on both sides.”

Woods said SWCDs and their stakeholders should take the budget cut as a call-to-action to find a new way forward. He said he wants to diversify how SWCDs are funded to become less reliant on the traditional funding model, so that they’re still able to supply boots-on-the-ground workers. That could even be more local funding, where SWCD efforts upfront can potentially save taxing bodies work in the long run, Woods said.

“So if we can start to get investments from other avenues — such as townships, counties, cities — to help support putting conservation at the headwaters, then it reduces down the road other things that they need to do, like dredging ditches and putting in pollinators. Let's utilize a resource that's here to help support that,” Woods said.

And Woods said they need to tell their own story better — how important SWCDs are to Illinois.

“We’ve got to make sure that we let all of our community members understand the importance of soil health and clean water, instead of taking those things for granted,” he said.

Woods said SWCDs were established during the 1930s to provide assistance to agricultural producers coming out of the dust bowl.

“FDR wrote, ‘A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself,’” said Woods.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
Courtney Craft is a digital reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the station in 2024.