How often do you think or talk about your local watershed? For most, it is probably not a standard topic of conversation. The reality is, we all live, work and play in watersheds, and our actions can impact water quality locally and downstream.
Watersheds, the area of land that drains to one point such as a creek, lake, or river, come in all shapes and sizes, and each are identified by a unique number called a hydrologic unit code (HUC). I primarily focus my work with University of Illinois Extension in the approximately 1.6 million acre Embarras River Watershed (HUC 05120112), and the approximately 1.4 million acre Little Wabash River Watershed (HUC 05120114). They are located in east-central and southeastern Illinois and are made up of several subwatersheds that eventually join with their namesake river.
Watersheds do not follow conventional boundaries like county or state lines, but they are a great unit to plan and manage water resources by. A watershed based plan assesses potential water quality problems, such as runoff from urban or agricultural sources (among many others), and outlines strategies that can be utilized to address the issues. Planning on a watershed scale is not a new concept, but a fresh focus is being placed on watershed work in Illinois. Why? The importance of having a local, strategic, and meaningful plan to address water quality issues has become increasingly apparent since the release of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy in 2015. In the NLRS, goals were created to reduce nitrate-nitrogen and total phosphorus losses by 15% and 25%, respectively, by the year 2025, and to eventually reduce both nutrients’ losses by 45%. Developing watershed plans, particularly in areas that are considered priorities (both the Embarras and Little Wabash River Watersheds are phosphorus priorities in the NLRS), could help speed up our progress towards meeting the goals outlined in the NLRS. Watershed plans are created with feedback from stakeholders in the watershed, such as landowners, farmers, city and county board members, city and government employees, local businesses, citizens, and anyone who is interested in contributing their time towards discussing the effort. Having local feedback and participation is critical to the success of the plan.
In a state where approximately 75% of the total land area is farmed, according to the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, a vital element to incorporate in watershed planning in Illinois is agriculture. Through the development of a watershed plan and with input from farmers and landowners, specific conservation practices can be listed in a watershed plan that, if adopted, would improve the water quality issues that were identified. Examples of this could be implementing cover crops on a predetermined amount of acres, or building a certain number of grassed waterways. There is no obligation to implement the conservation practice, but it can be used as a pathway to address water quality issues and concerns expressed by stakeholders in the watershed.
If you hear of watershed planning efforts in your area, I ask that you consider joining the conversation. Those of us working to develop these plans need input from landowners and farmers, and anyone with a vested interest in their local water quality. A large group of stakeholders is currently working towards updating a plan for the Embarras River Watershed, and a new planning effort will be starting in a subwatershed of the Little Wabash, located primarily in Effingham County, in January 2020. If you are interested in either of these efforts and want to get involved, please contact me at 217-347-7773 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer Woodyard is a University of Illinois Extension Watershed Outreach Associate.