For the Sake of Clean Drinking Water, Pass a Better Farm Bill

Luann Noll
September farm - credit Alena Mozhjer, iStock

Our natural resources connect us all—the water we drink, the climate we live in, the outdoors we enjoy. In the face of water quality concerns, a changing climate and more, we find ourselves in a moment of urgency to protect them.

Some of the best tools to do so are programs found in the Farm Bill, which our elected leaders in Congress pass roughly every five years. Agriculture policy may feel removed for some people, even in a state like Illinois. But the Farm Bill affects all Americans by investing in our natural resources.

The Farm Bill affects all Americans by investing in our natural resources.

Seventy-five percent of Illinois is farmland. The way our farms are managed impacts all of us–and not just the food we eat, but also the water we drink. The quality of your water when it comes out of the tap is directly linked to how the land is used upstream. If fertilizer, manure and other nitrogen-rich compounds wash off fields, they become nitrate when mixed with water.

In many parts of the Midwest, nitrate levels in our ground and surface waters are too high and pose a serious threat to human health. Even at levels deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency, prolonged exposure to nitrate in drinking water is linked to higher rates of colon cancer, thyroid disease and some birth defects, including spina bifida.

In 2015, Illinois adopted a Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy to address the issue. A key goal was to reduce nitrate-nitrogen loads in waterways by 15 percent by 2025. Experts say we are not on track. In fact, between 2017 and 2021, there was actually a statewide increase by 4.8 percent.

One way that farmers and landowners can protect our water is by implementing beneficial conservation practices that reduce runoff, limit excess fertilizer use and keep nutrients where they belong in the field. For example, they might plant a cover crop in the off-season or install grass buffers along streambanks. For every acre of farmland with these types of practices, entire communities reap benefits downstream.

The Farm Bill includes multiple programs that encourage conservation practices. They are entirely voluntary, and farmers must apply for the specific practices they are interested in. If accepted, they receive financial and technical assistance for those practices.

The benefits of Farm Bill conservation programs are not limited to water quality. They also help fight climate change by sequestering carbon, and they protect critical wildlife habitat. Further, they improve the health of the soil, which has been linked to higher nutritional value in our food.

In a moment when we need to do everything we can to encourage these types of practices, we are turning people away. Demand for these voluntary, incentive-based programs outstrips available federal funding.

We all pay the price when thousands of farms and likely hundreds of thousands of acres don’t move forward with conservation.

Illinois is no exception. In 2023, more than 3,000 farmer applicants in Illinois were turned away from just two key programs due to lack of funding. For the popular Environmental Quality Incentives Program, less than 20 percent of applicants were accepted.

We all pay the price when thousands of farms and likely hundreds of thousands of acres don’t move forward with conservation. That’s what happened in 2023 – and when those trends persist, as they have for years, the lost opportunity compounds.

Right now, our members of Congress are writing the next Farm Bill. In the process, they must meet the moment and make conservation a top priority. This includes fully funding critical programs to meet demand from farmers and move the needle for conservation on the ground.

On May 24, a version of the Farm Bill cleared the first hurdle in the process. It has many more to go. The draft was a good first step, and it included League-developed priorities. But there is room for improvement, particularly relating to soil health and climate.

The Izaak Walton League of America was founded in Chicago in 1922 out of alarm about the quality of the water and health of land in the Midwest. Today, the need to safeguard our water and soil is no less urgent.

Luann Noll is a member of the Izaak Walton League of America and serves on the board of directors of the League’s Illinois Division.

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