Heavy machinery used to slow erosion along Lake Michigan in southern Wisconsin.
Susan Bence/Great Lakes Today
October 26, 2016

Erosion Threatens Homes On Lake Michigan

Lake Michigan is experiencing high water levels, bad news for some residents along the western shore.  Huge chunks of the shoreline are eroding, and dozens of Wisconsin homeowners are watching their property disappear at alarming rates.

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DC Water General Manager and CEO George Hawkins
Provided by George Hawkins
October 21, 2016

Head Of DC Water Speaking About Cooperation

Drinking water has been part of the national conversation since the discovery of lead in Flint, Michigan’s water supply last year. That’s one reason the Prairie Rivers Network has invited George Hawkins to speak at their annual dinner Friday in Champaign. Hawkins is the General Manager and CEO of DC Water, one of the largest municipal water companies in the country.

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A peregrine falcon takes a protective stance over one of her two chicks on the balcony of a 25th floor apartment on Chicago's Michigan Ave., May 14, 2002. Eleven pairs of wild breeding peregrines live in Illinois in 2003, and are among the anima
(Photo: AP Photo/Charles Bennett)
September 21, 2015

Endangered Species Board Itself Threatened

An email from the then-Director of the Illinois Endangered Species Board earlier this month was sudden and direct. "Funding is being eliminated" and won't be reinstated any time in the foreseeable future,” it read. The email had been sent one of her last days on the job.

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Farmer Lin Warfel stands on his farm in front of a drainage area
photo by Claire Everett
November 13, 2014

Farmers Tell EPA To Ditch The Rule

The public comment window for the Waters of the U.S. rule is set to close on Friday – more than half a year after the regulation was first introduced by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The conversation on the rule has been highly contentious, drawing criticism from national lawmakers, state officials, agricultural associations and individual farmers, many of whom have voiced their concern through public meetings, news articles, congressional letters, formal comments and thousands of posts on social media.

The rule aims to clarify which bodies of water the federal agencies can regulate. The agriculture industry has largely opposed the rule, arguing it will impede farming operations with unnecessary and unclear regulation.

“It’s very concerning,” said Lin Warfel, a corn and soybean farmer from just outside the central-Illinois village of Tolono. “The ambiguity of the regulations will lead to lots of problems for me as a farmer.”

For Warfel and others in the agriculture industry, the main sticking point on the rule is its protection of seasonal and rain-dependent streams. Many farms – including Warfel’s – have long drainage ditches that stay dry for most of the year, but fill up and connect to rivers during heavy rains.

The proposed rule, which falls under the 1972 Clean Water Act, also protects wetlands.

“Clean and safe water is important to everybody in the United States,” said Ellen Gilinsky, an EPA senior policy adviser. “A lot of people take it for granted, but without the protections under the Clean Water Act, you know, we had rivers on fire back in the ‘70s.”

With just a day left before the public comment period ends on Friday, the proposed rule has received more than 12,000 formal comments. The Illinois Soybean Association, the Illinois Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council are just three of the groups that submitted comments, documented on Regulations.gov.

“It is absolutely ridiculous to consider any puddle or amount of water that runs across a field, gold course, yard, park, ball field, as waters to be regulated as ‘Waters of the U.S.,’” wrote one Champaign County farmer.

“For the EPA to claim jurisdiction over these ditches and water ways would severely impact the decisions I make over how I farm,” wrote another.

Congressional records also show that nine U.S. senators, including new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, recently signed their names to a letter directed to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Army Secretary John McHugh and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack.

“As the Administration continues to extend the timeframe for finalization of the flawed WOTUS proposal, any further discussion of how agricultural activities may fit into this framework must allow for a transparent and public process in which the voice of American agriculture can be heard,” the letter, dated Oct. 23, stated.

The American Farm Bureau Federation sponsored a handful of mass-mail campaigns that urged farmers to submit negative comments.

“The more regulations I have to put up with, the less profit I have, the more complicated my production practices get,” said Warfel, who is harvesting his 52nd crop since taking over the roughly 2,000-acre farm established by his great-grandfather in 1882. “I’m very concerned about this new set of regulations.”

Supporters try to counter ‘misinformation’ campaign

Yet, some of the concern coming from the agriculture industry may be misguided, according to Gilinsky, who spent the summer and parts of this fall traveling across the country talking one-on-one with producers.

“Unfortunately, while many stakeholders in the agriculture community have brought up some very valid concerns with some of the wording that we’ve used and how it could be clearer, overall, there’s a lot of misinformation out there saying that farmers are now going to need permits to plow their fields,” she said.

The proposed rule, for example, does not change the special exemptions and exclusions the Clean Water Act has provided the agriculture industry throughout the past 40 years.

It also does not add regulation to farm ponds, and it specifically excludes groundwater.

“It’s worth noting that the statute itself provides specific exemptions for certain agricultural operations, such as the discharge of dredge or fill from normal farming operations or irrigation return flows,” said Al Lin, a law professor at the University of California-Davis who specializes in environmental law. “These exemptions are found in the statute itself, and so cannot be changed by agency rue.”

A Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting analysis shows that social media has played a key role in the public’s understanding of the rule. For instance, critics have used the Twitter hashtag “#DitchTheRule” to share why they oppose the Waters of the U.S. rule. Since August, the tag has been tweeted or retweeted more than 14,000 times.

The American Farm Bureau Federation has used the tag more than any other user, and its Twitter cover photo is currently a picture of a puddle in a field with the words “it’s time to ditch the rule.”

“In agriculture, we’re at a point where we want to really tell people, ‘Stop. Wait. Give us some relief, here. Back off,’” Warfel said.

To dispel some of inaccurate criticism, the EPA introduced a Twitter tag of its own, “#DitchTheMyth.”

“If we had a mere puddle, a puddle with no sort of connection to any waters of the United States, that would not be regulated,” Lin said. “I think that’s clear, and I don’t think there’s any desire to regulate that.”

Although the comment window is set to close on Nov. 14, Lin said the conversation on what the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers can – and cannot – regulate is likely to continue.

“You can imagine a legal challenge to the rule and whether it’s consistent with what the Supreme Court has done, as well as the Clean Water Act, generally,” he said. “I don’t expect that this is going to be the final word.”

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit newsroom devoted to coverage of agribusiness and related topics, such as government programs, environment and energy. Visit us at www.investigatemidwest.org.

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two people making paper
Tiffany Jolley/WILL
October 04, 2014

Farmers Make Money and Paper from Crop Waste

A report from the US Department of Agriculture several years ago found that farmers can do more with the stems, leaves and other materials leftover after harvest than plow it back into the soil. One option is to sell it to make paper products.

Eric Benson launched a company called Fresh Press in Champaign. He says a forty-pound bale of leftover prairie grass can generate about five-hundred dollars of additional income for local farmers. He talked with Illinois Public Media’s Tiffany Jolley about the process and its economic and enviromental implications.

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June 02, 2014

C-U Backers Of EPA Carbon Pollution Rules Speak Out

The Obama administration’s new draft rules targeting power plant emissions found some central Illinois support.

At a Champaign news conference on Monday, speakers including U of I climate change scientist Donald Wuebbles praised the rules as a step in the right direction. The proposed rules seek to cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030. And Wuebbles says he hopes the federal government will stay focused on addressing climate change over the years.

"Now, can we convince Congress to stay with this, or the next president to stay with this? I don’t know," said Wuebbles, the Harry E. Preble Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Illinois Urbana campus. "But I think what President Obama is doing is the right kind of thing. We need to be pressuring to reduce emissions, somehow. Will that be sustained? I hope so. But who knows? I’ve given enough testimony before Congress that I’m a little worried about that.

Wuebbles is one of the coordinating lead authors on the assessment reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore in 2007. But Wuebbles will find little support for the new rules on power plant emissions from members of Congress in east-central Illinois. Republicans Rodney Davis and John Shimkus both say the new EPA rules are part of the Obama administration’s “war on coal” that will cut jobs and raise energy prices.

Opposition to the rules also came from the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association, which says the nation needs an “all of the above approach” that includes coal along with natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy sources. And the head of the Illinois Coal Association is pledging to challenge the proposed regulations “every step of the way”.

In contrast, U-S Senator Dick Durbin (R-Illinois) praised the new EPA rules, saying it “gives states like Illinois the authority and flexibility to develop a strategy to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, encourage local stakeholders to develop a plan to protect jobs, and provide the next generation a more livable world.” Durbin also cited the FutureGen 2.0 project, which will update a coal-fired power plant in the Morgan County town of Meredosia with carbon-capture technology designed to remove carbon dioxide from its emissions and store it underground.


May 30, 2014

Climate change threatens U.S. food security; crop insurance poised to remain hot topic

Warm temperatures and extreme weather will thwart agriculture production and threaten U.S. food security, an executive-branch assessment on climate change released in early May found.

As a result, federal crop insurance programs may serve even greater roles when it comes to farmers’ risk management plans, industry officials say.

“If that does come into play, I think that just certifies even further that crop insurance will remain as a very, very valuable tool,” said Doug Yoder, senior director of affiliate and risk management for the Illinois Farm Bureau.

Put together by hundreds of the world’s leading experts, the National Climate Assessment outlined how climate change will affect the economic, environmental and general well-being of the United States.

In a section focused on agriculture, the assessment reported that climate change will cause many regions throughout the country to see declines in crop and livestock production. The United States currently produces about $330 billion in agricultural commodities each year, so even small declines in production could translate into billions of dollars in losses.

The National Climate Assessment, released earlier in May, outlined how climate change will affect the $330 billion a year agriculture industry.

Additionally, the assessment reported that climate change will boost optimal conditions for weeds, pests and other diseases, making it increasingly difficult to successfully farm.

“Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past 40 years and are projected to increase over the next 25 tears,” stated the 1,300-page assessment.

Yet, a Government Accountability Office report released in February last year found that federal crop insurance programs, which protect farmers when nature devastates their crops or when market prices diminish their returns, are not “well suited” to adjust to climate challenges.

“Agencies responsible for the nation’s two key federal insurance programs had done little to develop the kind of information needed to understand their long-term exposure to climate change,” the report stated.

In the 2012 drought year, federal crop insurance data show that U.S. farmers and ranchers received a total of more than $17.4 billion in insurance payouts, also known as indemnities.

That total was about $6 billion more than the previous year.

Farmers paid more than $11.1 billion in insurance premiums in 2012. However, the government subsidized more than half of that amount.

The Environmental Protection Agency predicted that climate change is particularly likely to increase the number of 2012-type droughts in the Midwest.

Considering the location of the nation’s Corn Belt, which stretches across the heart of the country from Iowa to Indiana, that could add up to even more crop insurance costs for the government.

Illinois farmers received more than $3.5 billion in crop insurance payouts in 2012.

They received less than $45 million in crop insurance payouts in 2000.

“With the 2012 drought, one of the largest magnitude droughts we’ve ever had, we saw significant claims in Illinois,” Yoder said.

Despite warnings from the Government Accountability Office, Congress used the Farm Bill signed into law in February to expand crop insurance programs by billions of dollars.

Projections from the Congressional Budget Office estimate the Farm Bill will increase funding for crop insurance by a total of about $5.7 billion from 2014 to 2023. It will expand the programs by $74 million dollars in 2015 and then expand them by hundreds of millions of dollars each year after that.

“Crop insurance easily came out as the number one thing [Illinois farmers] asked us to fight to keep,” said Yoder. “I think that they’ve made up their mind that crop insurance is the cornerstone going forward of their risk management portfolio.”

The Government Accountability Office handles the investigation of federal waste and abuse.

Besides crop insurance programs, the government administers the National Flood Insurance Program.

Shifts in climate change the geography of crop insurance

Besides the National Climate Assessment, data collected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration show that global surface temperatures in 2012 were the ninth warmest on human record.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international research coalition tasked with evaluating climate change phenomena, also predicted that temperatures will rise by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the next century.

That increase would make summers in northern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois feel much more like summers in Texas.

“If you look at global monthly temperatures, the last time we experienced a month that was colder than the 20th century mean was 1985,” said Brad Rippey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist. “This is 30 consecutive years that we’ve strung together that have been quite warm from a global standpoint – and at that point, it becomes pretty obvious if you have some background in statistics that this is just not an anomaly anymore.”

Downtown Ackerly is a town in the heart of West Texas cotton country. If climate change projection hold true, future summers in Illinois could soon feel more like current summers in Texas.

Consequently, climate predictions and crop insurance data suggest that climate change will change where crop insurance money is going.

As northern regions get hotter, farmers will plant crops that were once ill-suited to their area. That idea is already demonstrated by the influx of North Dakota farmers that have only recently started planting soybeans.

Soybeans in North Dakota were virtually nonexistent before the 1980s, Rippey said. But as the state’s climate turned warmer and wetter, there was a dramatic expansion of the Soybean Belt into the state.

“Now we see on average something around the order of three and a half to 4 million acres every year devoted to soybeans in North Dakota,” Rippey said.

North Dakota insured less than 1.8 million acres of soybeans in 2000.

That number more than doubled to 4.6 million acres of soybeans in 2012.

During that time, government subsidies to help North Dakota farmers pay insurance premiums on soybeans increased from about $7.4 million to more than $126 million.

Insurance payouts more than tripled.

“There’s a lot of criticism of crop insurance and how much it cost, and that’s fair with these federal budget deficits we’re looking at,” Yoder said. “But, when I look at the model of crop insurance, I really don’t understand why we’d want to mess with that particular model and put it in danger of not working.”


October 04, 2013

Drought Monitor Sill Active Amid Shutdown

Despite a partial shutdown of the federal government, the U.S. Drought Monitor Map is still online, and being updated.

That’s despite three of the four agencies responsible for it being closed. Those three are the USDA, NOAA, and the Department of Commerce. The fourth agency, the National Drought Mitigation Center is still open for business.

Brian Fuchs, with the center, said that four of the eleven people who author the drought monitor have been furloughed.

Which means more work for the remaining seven employees.

Fuchs said that will mean extending the usual two week shifts each takes in charge of creating the drought monitor map.

"After a couple weeks of that, you dedicate a lot of time and we all have other duties that we're responsible for, and you start getting worn out by just the continuous and constant stream of information that's flowing across your desk in putting together the weekly product," he said.

Fuchs said that the employees still working are with the mitigation center and subsets of the closed agencies that have been deemed essential, like the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.

He said that much of the data they rely on is collected by federal agencies, but actually provided by state agencies, automated systems, and universities.

So, Fuchs said, they have been able to go right to the source and still get the data they need.


A coalition lobbying for a fracking moratorium protested Illinois' pending legislation during the 2013 General Assembly session.
(Amanda Vinicky/IPR)
October 03, 2013

DNR Opens Fracking Registration

Illinois is a ways off from allowing oil and gas drillers to begin "fracking" but companies that are interested can begin the paperwork.

Environmentalists lost their fight to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Lawmakers instead decided to open Illinois to a practice that's been an economic boon in other states.

Still - legislators say the law they passed to regulate fracking has the strongest safeguards in the nation. That includes a multi-step process before a company can use the method to access oil and gas deep underground. The first phase is underway, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris McCloud sad companies can now register.

"The point of clarification is: we're not at the point where we are starting to accept permit applications, we are merely giving companies the ability to register with us, which would then indicate their intent to at some point apply for a permit," he said.

McCloud said it is the permit that will detail where a company wants to "frack," and how deep they expect to drill. He noted that the public and legislators will have a chance to comment before rules for permits are put in place.


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