Working with our partners

Alec Messina is Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency

One of the best parts of my job as Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency are the oppor­tunities I get to speak to groups of people that are impacted by the agency every day. It’s important to me for a number of reasons. First, I get to tout the significant improvements that we are making with regards to the environment, noting the huge gains we are making to improve our air quality, to protect our rivers and streams, and to cleanup spills and ­contaminated sites throughout the state. I also get to share all the important work done by the agency’s dedicated and talented staff, giving them credit in a public forum that they rarely get, yet certainly deserve. But as important as those points are, there is one ­benefit to getting out and meeting people that truly is ­invaluable – developing relationships and ­partnerships with all kinds of different individuals, groups and stakeholders.

It seems silly to say something so obvious, but relationships are so important! Those relationships can lead to strong partnerships, and it is working collaboratively with partners that can truly make a difference in protecting our environment. We accomplish so much when we are working together, hand in hand. One prime example of this can be found in Livingston County, where the agency partnered with a host of stakeholders to protect the Indian Creek watershed.

Initiated in 2006 and completed in 2016, the Indian Creek project is a national model for showing how a public/private partnership can improve water quality in a rural area serving rural public water ­supplies. The Indian Creek watershed ­covers 51,243 acres in north-central Illinois, including three small towns and ­several unincorporated areas. Agriculture is the predominate occupation. In 2012, the Vermilion River – a source of drinking water for two communities and which Indian Creek is tributary to – was ­identified as being impaired for nitrates, total nitrogen, and sediment and total suspended solids. Nitrate impairment is a significant public water supply issue, and the pollutants generally are associated with agricultural ­activities. Based on our knowledge that these impairments may be positively ­influenced by the adoption of agricultural conservation systems and best management practices on farmland, the Indian Creek Watershed Project was initiated. The key concepts at the heart of the project were:

* The importance of locally led ­conservation efforts;

* The power of including stake­holders in the watershed from on and off the farm;

* Cooperation among conservation entities within the watershed;

* Demonstrations of key conser­vation practices under local ­conditions; and

* The impact of applying priority conservation practices by at least 50 percent of the producers in a small watershed to improve water quality in the receiving surface waters.

The Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District was the local lead for the project, and they worked closely with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office and the local watershed steering committee to ­organize the project and secure funding through NRCS’s Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative. Simultaneously, the Conservation Technology Information Center secured a nonpoint source ­pollution control grant from Illinois EPA, funded through Section 319 of the Clean Water Act.

The Illinois EPA, utilizing our own staff and supplemented by additional grant funds, provided ­monitoring support to the watershed and ­documented numerous water quality improvements. These findings showed:

* No downstream increase in nitrate concentrations;

* The majority of annual nitrate export occurs during large storm events (pointing towards the importance of conservation ­practices); and

* A decreasing trend of nitrate export over time was detected.

The payoffs of the project became strikingly apparent during the second half of the project when commodity prices crashed. The demonstrations continued, the steering committee held together, improvements in water quality were documented, and ­acreage under conservation practices held above the targeted 50 percent mark, despite the challenges facing the ­producers in the watershed. Born in good times and maintained through tough times, the conservation lessons will echo through the years to come.

Indian Creek’s impact will be felt well beyond its banks. The six-year project was a model program, a ­shining example of organization and ­leadership, a showcase for public/private ­partnerships, a case study in demonstration plots and outreach, a watershed studied for water chemistry and social sciences, and a case study for ­organizers in watersheds across the nation. And it’s a fantastic example of what we can do when we work together, ­collaboratively, with our partners.