SYCAMORE, Ill. — Dean Johnson knows what it feels like, as a farmer, to see a season’s hard work washed away by flooding.
“I farmed right along the Kishwaukee River. I always tell people it’s because of that river that I have this job today, because flooding was an issue when I was farming. It beat me up and I finally had to just say — this isn’t working anymore. And that’s what brought me here,” Johnson said.
He has been the resource conservationist at the DeKalb County Soil and Water Conservation District for 20 years.
In 2014, county officials decided they wanted to take a proactive approach to stormwater management and planning, in the form of developing a watershed plan.
The idea of developing a plan before it was needed was a step ahead in itself. Funding for the watershed planning comes from a variety of sources, including the DeKalb County Community Foundation.
“That is actually pretty proactive. A lot of times, in watershed planning, you’ll see it occurring because there’s an issue. There’s something going on in the area that needs to be addressed. But in this situation, we’ve got the county saying we’d like to get watershed planning done in our whole county,” Johnson said.
The area that the county planners decided to focus on was the East Branch of the South Branch of the Kishwaukee River.
The Kishwaukee River originates near Woodstock and runs for 63 miles to the Rock River. The river flows through six counties, including DeKalb County and the city of DeKalb.
Since the term “watershed” can be confusing, Johnson uses a common habit.
“I always tell people if you want to think about when you step into the bathtub or shower and turn the shower on, the water from the shower finds its outlet at the drain at the end of the tub. So, to give a description of a watershed, you look at it as an area where, on the landscape, water will drain to an outlet. That could be a stream or a river,” he said.
The word “planning” also can make some stakeholders nervous.
“This is not any type of a regulatory process. Basically, we’re trying to gather as much information about the watershed as we can and then to present that to the folks who live in the watershed. The goal is to try to work together to improve water quality in the watershed,” Johnson said.
He said one of the ongoing goals of the watershed work is to encourage the use of more structures that can improve water quality when it comes to agricultural lands. Those structures can be eligible for funding from a variety of sources, including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants.
“One of the things we really try to encourage, especially along these drainage ways, is we’d like to see filter strips put in along there to help protect these streams. A lot of the riparian corridors along these streams are very much degraded. If you’re looking at the wildlife and the fish benefits from these ditches and such, they are not in the best condition for that type of thing,” Johnson said.
He said he understands that drainage is the top priority when it comes to ag lands and one of his tasks is to promote, educate and encourage farmers to utilize more conservation tools.
While the adoption of those structures has been steady, Johnson said he would like to see more.
“I haven’t seen the increase I’d like to see. I think it’s more steady. There are a lot of opportunities for people to do some of these practices on their properties. There are some of these pothole wetlands and such where they are struggling to get a crop off of that area anyway. Why not put it in a program where you take it out of production and get cost-share on it? I wish we could see more. We’re not seeing a major increase in those projects,” he said.
Johnson said the possibility also exists for farmers to work with urban watershed planners on watershed projects that benefit both groups. For example, wastewater treatment facilities in urban areas could work with ag landowners and help fund conservation projects.
“We haven’t gotten to this yet, but I think it might someday occur where those urban officials might be able to help cost-share stream edges and stream-type practices because it will benefit them. It will show that they are doing things in the community to improve water quality and also in the output of their discharge into the river. So, I think that there’s opportunity for partnerships with urban and ag areas, because watersheds don’t have boundaries. So, they all need to work toward the same goal,” Johnson said.