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My backyard is the Spoon River Valley of American literature fame. Not so far away is the more obscure La Moine River, just a long stone’s throw from my house over a low rise on the landscape in northeastern McDonough County, Illinois.
Both the Spoon and La Moine flow east to the Illinois River, which cuts south and west across Illinois in a broad valley to join the Mississippi not far north of St. Louis. The La Moine’s 2,000-square-mile watershed contains a tangled network of small tributaries that flow through five counties. Our Midwestern geology shows something of a sense of humor with the 125-mile-long and curvy La Moine. From its headwaters in McDonough County, about 40 miles from the Mississippi, the small river flows west into Henderson and Hancock counties, both of which are on the Big Muddy, before turning southeast to flow into Illinois River near Beardstown.
The small waterways that crisscross and feed the LaMoine may seem minor, but they are really part of a much wider ecology. The Illinois River Valley covers 28,000 square miles. The Mississippi River Valley, with all of its major and minor tributaries, encompasses 1.15 million square miles that empty into the Gulf of Mexico.
Those small waterways—some named, some not—have been shaped and reshaped by natural and human forces. Since settlers began widespread cultivation of the rich Illinois prairie and woodlands in the 1800s, land has been drained and water courses filled in or redirected to suit the needs of the farmers. The initial clearing of forests and the later plowing of prairies—whose often wet soils were at first considered inferior for farming—showed little or no consideration for soil erosion, water quality, or the loss of biological diversity. The object was to grow food first to support families and soon to provide commodities for growing national and global markets, even before the Civil War. Now, this once-rich ecosystem of streams mainly drains farmland, often carrying eroded soil away and always carrying a load of agrichemicals.
For a landscape where so many trees have been removed, these waterways can offer a break on the horizon with their tree-lined banks. Even with cultivation, this is as it should be environmentally, because the trees hold soil in place and help with filtration. Too often, however, the streams meander through treeless areas, and the land is cultivated as close to the bank as possible. Too many farmers forget the importance of these waterways to their land or for the wider region.
Near my home in western Illinois, there’s a small waterway that demonstrates both the good and bad of farming practices. Prairie Run is a good representation of how Americans are treating our minor streams. Some farmers along Prairie Run implement good conservation practices, planting and maintaining trees, filtering their runoff with wide grass strips to conserve soil, and encouraging natural areas on their land.
Sadly, the opposite approach of ignoring conservation practices seems to be just as common, if not more so. It is shocking to see slopes cleared of trees and plowed without contours right down to the stream edges. Miles of tile have been installed in the last several years to drain damp areas; these tiles flow directly into streams and road ditches, without regard for filtering the runoff they carry. From time to time, cattle have been allowed to wallow in the watercourse.
According to one of my friends, an agriculture professor who specializes in soils and emphasizes conservation practices in his classes, a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field agent once told him that one-third of the farmers willingly apply conservation practices in the normal course of their operations. About one-third of the farmers will apply conservation practices with incentives. The bad news is that about a third simply hide behind the prerogative of private property with the claim that the land is theirs to use as they see fit. Conservation is not a concern.
Prairie Run demonstrates the mixed quality of our voluntary conservation programs and their impacts on our soil and water quality. A number of landowners practice dedicated care of the landscape with trees and grass or prairie plantings that protect waterways. Other landowners have left visible scars of poor practices that become more evident after heavy rains. They have needlessly cut trees and farmed on slopes and in floodplains.
In one case, a piece of land changed hands. The new owner must have spent thousands of dollars bulldozing trees along Prairie Run, burning the cut trees, and planting hay. Admittedly, this was not quality woodland, but it protected the stream. This could hardly have been an economically rational decision, much less an environmentally sound one with floodwaters that damage the hay in the floodplain.
Worse, on the other side of the run, the new owner cut better trees from a slope of 6 percent or more, planted the denuded hillside to hay, and extended the existing cropland over the crest of the slope, opening the risk for increased soil erosion and run off.
Up and down Prairie Run, there are gratifying examples of landowners and farmers who genuinely care for their land. But it is frustrating to watch the shortsighted and poor farming practices that keep the small waterways in such poor shape.
In a recent conversation, a farmer friend of mine said he felt like reporting the violators to the government, but couldn’t because they were neighbors. He suggested I do it. Another friend, a conservation expert, chipped in that even if I were to report the activity, no one would do anything about it.
Well, I am reporting it. Prairie Runs, loved and abused, are everywhere across the Midwest. Someone from NRCS—and I realize field support has dwindled—could drive the backroads of almost any farming area in the country and see the lousy practices that abound. If they dare, they might even talk with the farmers about conservation stewardship, or, heaven forbid, work more closely with the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies to water quality and soil.
In a world with constantly growing population and a host of environmental problems, including climate change, my fervent hope is that someone in power will find it in their hearts to protect the interests of the larger rural community nearby, the farmers who practice conservation, and the folks who live downstream.
These minor waterways were never meant to be sewers for individuals. They are part of our common heritage on the land. We all deserve better.
Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is the author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.