A Publication of WTVP

There is a lot of topsoil at the bottom of the Illinois River. Where did it all come from? Any time soil is left unprotected, it is prone to erosion. Soil can be protected from erosion by leaving corn and soybean plant material on the soil surface after harvest, spreading straw mulch over construction sites, or putting grass clippings and leaf litter on a garden or landscaped area.

Approximately 200 people attended a program at the Gateway Building in downtown Peoria last month. The program, titled Protecting the Illinois River…A Time for ACTION!, featured speakers from Caterpillar, the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Heartland Water Resources Council, transPORT, National Audubon Society and Dirksen Congressional Center, as well as several local legislators.

There have been vast improvements in the past three decades on the part of farmers and landowners protecting soil from erosion. Farm fields looked much different during the winter of 2008 as compared to 1978. Today’s farmers have been given the technology to produce large corn and soybean yields, and yet, protect the soil. They have adapted to no-tilling crops and/or utilizing reduced tillage on their fields; grass waterways have been established where water runoff is concentrated; terraces have been installed on highly-sloped fields; ponds and retention basins have been built to slow water runoff; and highly erodible land has been planted with perennials, such as prairie grasses and trees through Conservation Reserve and Forestry Programs.

Soil is expensive. Farmland has been increasing in value since the mid-eighties, taking a dramatic upturn in value during the past five years. Why wouldn’t a landowner want to protect and conserve this valuable resource? If you have an opportunity to drive or ride in a combine equipped with a yield monitor during harvest, you quickly realize how valuable prime Illinois topsoil is. In practically every field, you will find that yields vary throughout the field, and most of that yield variation can be attributed to the quantity and quality of the topsoil.

During the program at the Gateway Building, speakers eluded to some excellent programs that have been put in place to utilize the “mud” from the bottom of the Illinois River. A program called Mud to Parks has been established, in which Illinois River barges are loaded with mud from the Peoria Lakes, and this mud is then transported to downtown Chicago, where a brownfield is being converted to a recreational park.

Another idea on the drawing board is to dredge selected sites on the Illinois River and accumulate the dredged material so islands can be built. This seems to be another excellent and cost-effective idea that would create deep water pools to encourage fish habitat and other wildlife.

Is there a way to dredge this prime Illinois topsoil from the bottom of the Illinois River and place it back on the land so we can produce more food and fuel? A barrel of oil currently costs $107, and Illinois topsoil is basically oil. In 2007, Peoria County farmers averaged over 500 gallons of ethanol per acre. (Peoria County averaged 188 bushels of corn per acre and 2.8 gallons of ethanol is produced from each bushel.)

Farming practices have changed dramatically in the past 30 years because farmers have been given the tools and technology to both protect the soil from erosion and produce top yields. Most of the topsoil in the Illinois River has been laying idle for several decades, but it has been proven that it can spring to life again and produce an abundance. IBI