May 21, 2024

Lawmakers see wetlands’ benefits

DWIGHT, Ill. — Four state legislators toured a newly constructed wetland to learn firsthand about the natural solutions to reduce nutrient loss from cropland into streams.

State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, Rep. Jason Bunting, R-Emington, State Sen. Tom Bennett, R-Gibson City, and State Rep,. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, joined experts from The Wetlands Initiative, Mississippi River Network, Environmental Policy Innovation Center, the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators and other groups to tour the wetland that was constructed last August.

Discussions included the importance of supporting conservation practices such as constructed wetlands through policy and ways to innovatively do so by leveraging state and federal funding opportunities.

“This is a bipartisan issue and it needs to have bipartisan solutions.”

—  State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria

The gathering was part of the Mississippi river Network’s River Days of Action tour. A constructed wetland and restored wetland were installed last August at Feather Prairie Farm, owned by Wes and Andie Lehman of Dwight.

The tile-treatment wetland site is an innovative model for how various small-scale natural infrastructure projects can help promote sustainable agriculture, increase soil health and improve water quality in the entire watershed.

Following the site tour, lawmakers and others continued the discussion at the Dwight Country Club.

Lessons

“One thing I have learned today is the importance of wetlands in capturing chemical runoff,” Koehler said. “We know that wetlands are able to prevent nutrient loss, which if not captured, goes into the Illinois River and the Mississippi River, all the way to New Orleans.

“I think it’s imperative that Illinois steps up its game and makes more programs available for partnerships with farmers and landowners, so that we can really get ahead of the curve of this problem.

“To be able to come out into the farm areas and see wetlands being developed is very inspiring. I am glad to see each of the four legislative caucuses participating in this event today. This is a bipartisan issue and it needs to have bipartisan solutions.”

“This event brings awareness to us as legislators of anything that we could possibly work on as a state legislator and getting some laws together to promote the use of wetlands and the importance of it,” Bunting noted.

“Public perception and public awareness of the importance of wetlands and how we’re trying to reduce the nitrogen going down the stream and getting to the Gulf of Mexico is extremely important. Not only is it important for farmers to make sure we keep our nutrients in the ground to help our crops, but also the fact that we can slow it down and keep nutrients out of creeks.

“Municipalities are also extremely important. With the storm water coming off municipalities and going into the creeks, streams and eventually to the river, it’s an effort that we need to do together to better improve the land and be good stewards of the land.”

“It’s fun just to come out and see how this is coming together, the energy and excitement about wetlands and what’s going on in this local area in here in Livingston County,” Bennett said.

“This is one of several that they have and so I’m going to reach out to see what the other wetlands might look like, the ones that are a little bit older, just to kind of compare. I’m looking forward to seeing and learning more as we go forward.”

Partners

The Mississippi River Legislative Caucus staff partnered with the Mississippi River Network and The Wetlands Initiative to coordinate the tour.

The MRLC is a project of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. Created by and for state legislators, NCEL is a nonprofit that organizes over 1,200 environmentally-committed state legislators from all 50 states and both parties.

NCEL provides venues and opportunities for lawmakers to share ideas and collaborate on environmental issues.

“This was a great opportunity for legislators to experience the importance of nature-based solutions firsthand,” said Dylan McDowell, NCEL executive director.

“It’s our hope that touring these wetlands can serve as an inspiration and give them firsthand knowledge for effective policymaking. We look forward to seeing new collaborations that are spurred from this event.”

“We appreciate the legislators coming out and seeing this small farm-based wetland, as it is one example of the type of conservation practices needed to reduce Illinois’ nutrient runoff,” said Jill Kostel, senior environmental engineer, The Wetlands Initiative.

“State and federal funding programs are needed to support our Illinois farmers and landowners as they work to build healthy soils and to improve water quality.”

“This is part of our river tour event series. We go through different main stem states in the Mississippi River and we host events for state legislators specifically to connect them with each other, connect them to partners and then mainly just so they get a feel of what’s happening on the ground,” said Angela Yuan, project manager for agriculture, water and sustainability at NCEL.

“We do sustainable farm tours. We do educational tours for green infrastructure. The goal of today was just to get legislators out to a wetland, learning about the connection between agriculture, title drainage, the environment, water quality and soil health, and how wetlands are a great solution for treating water quality.”

Not unlike all other states, a small percentage of Illinois legislators have agriculture backgrounds.

Yuan was asked if a goal of the program includes inviting lawmakers with diverse backgrounds to participate.

“Legislators are so diverse, and a lot of them come from a wide range of different backgrounds that maybe don’t know anything about environmental conservation, wetlands and the importance of that,” Yuan said.

“We have legislators who are dentists and doing other side jobs, and so our goal for this is just to build a fundamental knowledge basis of the importance of wetlands and natural infrastructure so that they can use that information to drive change through policy.”

State Policies

In late May, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in the Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency case, narrowing the scope of federal regulation over waters of the United States under the Clean Water Act.

Yuan hopes events such as River Days of Action tour will help state lawmakers in their policy development.

“The Sackett v. EPA decision will impact the protection for millions of acres of wetlands in the U.S. Now that that ruling has taken place on the federal level, all of our hope is on the state level and now it’s up to state action to protect these wetlands,” she said.

“So, it was really great today to have the Ag Committee Chair Sonya Harper and also Dave Koehler who is such a champion of environmental issues in the Senate to be here and learn about these issues and also to engage in dialogue for what future solutions are because this is all so new and states are all scrambling to figure out a defense strategy.”

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor