Conservation projects may feel pinched

Springfield – Sportsmen and landowners will likely feel the
effects of funding problems with the Illinois Soil and Water
Conservation Districts.

As it turns out, DNR isn’t the only agency being squeezed by
state budgetary issues.

Among other projects, SWCDs oversee the Conservation Reserve
Enhancement Program, which combines resources of landowners, state,
local and federal agencies to enhance and improve the Illinois
River by protecting water quality and land in the Illinois River
Watershed.

SWCDs work with private landowners, making payments to
landowners and monitoring their conservation projects. SWCD staff
also works with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to
monitor construction projects, mainly focusing on protecting water
quality.

Landowners contacting their districts for projects are finding
out they might not be able to put those projects in motion this
year. Collectively, there are roughly 1,000 landowner agreements in
CREP, which is administered by DNR.

DNR has said it cannot inspect those projects – because of its
own staff and funding troubles.

Because many SWCDs have not received their share of state
funding, some are considering closing and laying off staff.

Richard Nichols, executive director of the Association of
Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said that many
offices have seen little or no money from the state since July.

“Some offices have reserves to fall back on, but many have
exhausted those reserves,” he said. “If nothing happens in the next
couple of months, offices are likely to close and staff could be
let go.”

SWCD offices employ about 240 people across the state.

Meanwhile, big plans to save the Illinois River appear to be on
hold, as Illinois may lose millions of dollars in federal funds
because of the state’s slow release of its money.

Some offices have been forced to take out loans to keep their
doors open – a rare move, Nichols said.

“The Scott County district did take out a loan,” he said. “They
did get a small portion of their annual allocation. They paid back
the loan, and now they’re running on a shoe string.”

According to state records, SWCDs work on about $200 million
worth of conservation projects annually.

As for the state, it has released $1.6 million of the $7.4
million appropriated to operate the state’s SWCDs.

Nichols said about $275 million in federal funds are funneled
through these districts for cost-sharing on the Illinois
River-saving projects. Costs are usually split 60-40, with private
owners paying the smaller portion.

Now that the state portion of the projects are on hold, federal
money could be given to other states.

“It may have some major impact on the river,” Nichols said. “We
won’t lose the whole $275 million, but we may lose a substantial
amount. Right now, with Illinois’ financial problems, any amount is
a substantial amount.”

SWCDs raise some of their own money by selling stocking fish,
trees and native plants.

Nichols said that, along with Scott County, Stark County is in
dire straits. And the Lawrence County district has announced it
will close May 30.

The Governor’s Office of Management and Budget told reporters in
late March that the General Assembly passed a budget based on
inflated revenue estimates and, as a result, there isn’t enough
revenue coming in to cover all the spending lawmakers approved in
their fiscal year ‘08 budget.

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