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Illinois

Farm Bureau opposes nutrient loss bill as negotiations continue

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The Illinois Farm Bureau is opposing a bill aimed at addressing nutrient runoff on farms as negotiations continue on a final proposal.

A bill meant to stem nutrient pollution resulting from farm runoff has met opposition from a formidable foe – the Illinois Farm Bureau – as negotiations on a final package continue.

Nutrient loss is one of the most serious pollution threats in the country, creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, poisoning local lakes and streams and causing serious health problems for people and domesticated animals.

Illinois, a major contributor to nutrients in water, pledged to develop strategies to reduce the nutrient loads leaving the border.

The state aimed to reduce nitrates and nitrogen by 15 percent and phosphorus by 25 percent by 2025, but the latest Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Implementation Report showed that nutrient loss increased by 13 percent and phosphorus losses increased by 35 percent, compared with a baseline period from 1980 to 1996.

The bill, Senate Bill 3471, was introduced in January, but was amended in early February, changing substantively from its original form that funded a program incentivizing the planting of cover crops by offering discounts on crop insurance.

The amended bill creates the Healthy Soils and Watershed Initiative that would be administered by the Department of Agriculture in cooperation with the state’s soil and water conservation districts, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the University of Illinois Extension program.

The Department of Agriculture would create guidelines to help with soil and water conservation districts to create a plan and establish funding levels with “measureable, cost-effective and technically achievable goals” to reduce nutrient loss.

The Initiative would then produce a study every two years, beginning in 2023, outlining efforts to combat nutrient loss and their overall effectiveness. It would also measure the overall picture of nutrient loss and whether the state was moving towards goals set out in the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

Supporters say the bill creates a baseline to gauge the scope of the problem and identify appropriate spending limits and strategies that work, and it also provides accountability to taxpayers.

The information collected by the agencies would also make it easier to obtain federal monies set aside to combat nutrient loss, said Maxwell Webster, Midwest Policy Manager for America Farmland Trust, a proponent of the bill.

The Illinois Farm Bureau voiced opposition to the bill in committee hearing because they say it is duplicative, complicated and bureaucratic.

The Farm Bureau said the bill put various state and federal agencies, authorities, and programs under one umbrella, making it difficult to implement. Adding provisions to already existing laws, like the Soil and Water Conservation Act, would make the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies less confusing and eliminate bureaucracy, said Lauren Lurkins, Director of Environmental Policy for the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“We believe that the current NLRS program is moving us in the direction of protecting the environment and helping farmers better manage their land and resources,” Lurkins wrote in an email. “SB 3471 has some great ideas in the proposed language, but does it in a way that is awkward and duplicative. We feel that there are many laws in place that can be changed to include the goals that this bill lays out in a more efficient and workable format.”

The Farm Bureau also voiced its opposition to mandates, stating that voluntary implementation will make the programs more palatable to farmers.

The bill is not designed to increase regulation and it does not create additional mandates. It is focused on making sure the state maximizes existing resources and successfully attracts additional investment from the federal government, Webster said.

“Mandates are not the answer to this problem. Farmers are our greatest stewards of the land and the focus needs to be on getting more resources in their hands to implement conservation practices,” Webster said. “That’s why this bill seeks to update our existing voluntary conservation programs so that they are more responsive to the needs of farmers and the goals of the nutrient loss reduction strategy while also addressing emerging challenges like climate change.”

The bill states “the initiative shall promote voluntary and incentive-based conservation efforts. No part of this act shall be used to impose mandates or require practice adoption.”

The original bill proposed an increase in funding for nutrient loss reduction policies over the next 10 years from $10 million to more than $25 million in 2027, extending through 2032, but that language was removed in the latest Senate amendment.

The original bill would also have expanded the eligible uses for the Partners for Conservation Fund, including funding the Fall Covers for Spring Savings Program. But that language was also stripped from the bill in Senate Amendment 1.

The funding mechanism of that program will now be spread out across IDOA, IDNR and IEPA in wider appropriation discussions, but the funding request for the cover crop program is the same as in the last bill.

“We look forward to working with Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago) and the other stakeholders of this legislation to work out all the technicalities of the legislation,” Lurkins said.

Advocates for the bill said they are hopeful it will be able to move when the Senate returns next week, as the deadline for its passage was extended to March 11.

It passed the Senate Agriculture Committee on an 8-6 vote last month, with only Democratic support. Committee chair Patrick Joyce, D-Essex, was the lone Democrat to oppose the bill in committee, joining Republicans in voting against it.