“Well, I suppose we don’t need farmers much. Just three times a day.”
What is conservation? The definition is “the careful preservation of something.”
Conservation is talked about typically in the context of nature, water, soil, a historic structure, artwork, and the like. In other words, there are many different things that can be conserved.
When people talk of land conservation, what do they mean? A quote from Aldo Leopold may help clarify: “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” Thus, conserving the land is conserving life itself.
Recently, someone asked me whether farming is compatible with conservation.
Oh boy, where do I start?
The Federal agency that works with farmers is called the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Since 1935, the NRCS, and its predecessor, the Soil Conservation Service, has worked with farmers to help ensure farming is done in a way that conserves both soil and water resources on the land so the land will be available for crop and livestock production forever.
The agency was formed as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1935 during the Dust Bowl when Congress passed Public Law 74-46, which states "the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands…is a menace to the national welfare....”
Maybe you saw Ken Burns’ documentary “The Dust Bowl,” but if not, here’s a quick summary: in the 1920s, areas of the great plains (Central United States and Canada) were being over-grazed and intensively farmed in ways that left top soil exposed to the elements. When an 8-year period of severe droughts hit the area in the 1930s, the soil literally blew away – as far away as Washington DC and New York City. In some places, 75% of the top soil was lost.
National leaders recognized that the rich prairie soils of our country were one of the most valuable natural resources the country had, and steps needed to be taken to ensure it was not wasted.
At the time, the new agency’s mission was to help farmers take better care of the land.
Today, the mission is to provide “America’s farmers and ranchers with financial and technical assistance to voluntarily put conservation on the ground, not only helping the environment but agricultural operations, too.”
To extend soil conservation to more farmers, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) were formed. NRCS staff work closely with the local SWCD staff to provide technical assistance on natural resource issues for landowners, farmers and other local individuals and organizations.
McHenry County is served by the McHenry-Lake Soil and Water Conservation District office in Woodstock that was formed in 1947 under the Soil and Water Conservation Districts Act: of 1937. The act states that it is " in the public interest to provide (a) for the conservation of soil, soil resources, water and water resources in the State, (b) for the control and prevention of soil erosion, (c) for the prevention of air and water pollution, and (d) for the prevention of erosion, floodwater and sediment damages, and thereby to conserve natural resources….”
There are various funding programs offered by the USDA through the NRCS. Examples include:
- the Wetland Reserve Program where landowners are paid to convert farmland permanently to wetland
- the Conservation Reserve Program where landowners are paid to convert farmland to grasses or trees for a set period of time (usually 10 years)
- the Conservation Stewardship Program that pays farmers who implement soil and water conservation practices such as no-till farming, use of cover crops to build organic matter in the soil, field buffers, grass waterways, management of habitat for wildlife, and many more things.
It is up to each farmer to decide what soil and water conservation practices he or she will use on their farm, but there is no shortage of good information and technical experts to help them make decisions that will conserve their land.
In McHenry County, water is all around us: Groundwater. Wetlands. Watersheds. Stormwater. Even so, all of the water people use locally comes from the ground. Municipal and private wells reach down into “groundwater aquifers” and pump water up for human use.
Aquifers are not underground pools. In this area, aquifers are found where deposits of sand, gravel, or sandstone have water filling the spaces between sand particles (or filling cracks in the rock). The water in the aquifers starts out on the surface and slowly works its way down to the porous material where wells can access it for pumping back to the surface.
Sand and gravel aquifers are found 10 to 400 feet below the surface in deposits left by the glaciers 12,000 or more years ago. It can take water up to 50 years to reach these aquifers depending on how close the sand and gravel is to the surface.
Sandstone aquifers are up to 1,300 feet (one-quarter mile) below the surface. Sandstone formations are the remnants of ancient sea beds that were compressed into stone over millenia. Water from the surface may take hundreds or thousands of years to reach the sandstone. Note: the water moving into sandstone aquifers under McHenry County is believed to come primarily from Boone County.
Here are some important things to know about the water under McHenry County:
- Most of the available water is in the shallow sand and gravel aquifers. But, that water is more susceptible to contamination because pollutants from the surface will reach it sooner or later. Note: The communities of Fox River Grove and Crystal Lake had to issue advisories to residents in recent years because of elevated levels of chemicals in their shallow wells. And more than 10 years ago, the City of Harvard had to close a shallow well because of chemical contamination.
- Water in the sandstone aquifers is less likely to become polluted, but there is also much less of it. Also, McHenry County municipalities are already withdrawing more water from deep wells each year than is filtering back into them. So, they will run dry one day.
The good news is that McHenry County has enough water to meet current and future water needs with the water resources that are available to us right beneath our feet – if we plan for it. Planning includes protecting the water quality in our shallow sand and gravel aquifers to be sure that this resource is available for future generations too. Preserving the ability of the land to allow water to soak in so the aquifers can be recharged is critical as well.
There are some simple things that residents can do to help ensure there are ample water resources for the future:
- Stop treating stormwater as a waste product that is sent “away” as quickly as possible. Slow it down. Let it soak into the ground to recharge aquifers instead.
- Use native plants for landscaping. Water use peaks in the summer when residents water their lawns and gardens to keep them lush. Many native plants are drought tolerant once established. They also have the added benefits of reducing stormwater runoff and increasing infiltration.
- Let lawns go dormant during the hot, dry days of summer.
- Preserve open land and farmland that allows water to soak into the ground.