Highland city officials are inviting local farmers and landowners to a free event to discuss how to get the most from their topsoil while helping to keep it from eroding into Silver Lake.
As part of the Highland Silver Lake Water Quality Initiative, the city, along with several other Madison County municipal and agricultural organizations, are joining the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District to host a Cover Crop Field Day on Thursday, Dec. 7 from 9 a.m. to noon.
For several years, the city has been working to improve the lake’s water quality.
In February, the city hosted a meeting with local farmers and landowners from within the Silver Lake watershed to start a dialect about partnering up to improve Silver Lake. The Cover Crop Field Day is a follow up to the meeting, and city officials hope it will help to form more partnerships.
“Ideally, we’d like to get that 83 percent of farmers participating once again in conservation farming,” Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District resource conservationist Eleanor Schumacher.
During the event, participants will hear presentations from guest speakers about how to improve the use of their soil, mainly by discussing the use of cover crops. Cover crops are one of the most recent trends in preventing field erosion. These plants are anything that can take hold during the off-season. Keeping this vegetation on the ground throughout the year helps to minimize erosion.
The field day will be held where farmers will get to see 40-plus acres of cover crop fields at Hunsche Farm, located at 12610 Niggli Road in Highland. Registration for the event will be done on site, starting at 8:30 a.m. The event is completely free and will include a complementary lunch.
Recently, the Hunsches partnered with the city to participate in a pilot program to help find solutions for Silver Lake’s issues with siltation.
The Hunsche farm, along with other large farms within the Silver Lake watershed, was identified as one of the most-impacted sections in which sediment deposits were immediately entering the creek and then flowing into Silver Lake, according to the city’s Natural Resource Manager Ryan Hummert.
“We’re just trying to help and be proactive towards the whole situation,” said Brent Hunsche, one of the family members.
The city assisted the Hunches with planting a test plot of cover crops.
Why is it a problem?
Silver Lake has been listed as an impaired body of water since 1994.
Schumacher said that Madison County has very fine, silty, yellowish-red-hued soils which for agricultural purposes are very productive. But these soils are also highly erosive. Out of the 37,000-acre Silver Lake watershed, about 83 percent of it is also agricultural, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and tilled soil erodes more easily.
When Silver Lake was built in 1962, its maximum depth was about 30 feet, with an average depth of approximately 14 feet. The lake’s original water storage capacity was reported as 12.9 million cubic meters, which equal to about 3.4 billion gallons. But the lake is starting to fill up.
According to a 2008 study of Silver Lake, an estimated 12 million gallons of sediment goes into the lake each year, of which about 82 percent becomes trapped. From 1962-2005, engineers said that about 22.2 percent or 754.8 million gallons of the lake’s water storage capacity has been lost. Today, the lake is only about 18 feet at it deepest point, said Highland Parks and Recreation Director Mark Rosen.
“We’ve lost about 1/3 of the water capacity. In the northern reaches, we have lost 1/2 of the water capacity,” Rosen said during an interview in July.
Silver Lake supplies water to homes and businesses in Highland, St. Jacob, Grantfork, and Pierron. Highland Director of Public Works Joe Gillespie said, on average, 1.2 million gallons of water from the lake gets treated and used per day. On summer days, that number can reach an upwards of 2 million gallons.
But Rosen said lost storage capacity hurts in other ways, too.
“We’ve realized that the lake is obviously here for our drinking water. But we can see a lot more benefits that the lake can provide for recreation and tourism,” Rosen said.
Hummert, the city’s natural resource manager, said the target areas of the lake are in the shallowest, upper regions. In those areas, depth can be less than a foot, which has made the section impassable to local anglers and other people using the lake for recreational purposes. Just 10 years ago, those areas used to be 3-5 feet deep, according to Hummert.
Schumacher, from Madison County Soils and Water Conservation, said water quality is also dampened by agricultural chemicals that come into the lake through the eroded soil. The three main chemical issues in Silver Lake, according to environmental studies, are from phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, and manganese.
Schumacher said phosphorus is responsible for the blue-green algae bloom, which occurs in the summer. The algae can cause taste and odor issues, which in turn, causes more chemicals to be used to treat potable water and can even cause boil orders. Algae also affects oxygen levels in the lake, which impacts wildlife.
How is it fixed?
Rosen, the parks and recreation director, said that countless studies have been done on the lake. Many studies end with the same conclusion: regions of the lake will eventually have to be dredged.
But before the city shells out big bucks required to dredge, officials want to stop as much sediment flowing into the lake as possible. Rosen said this can be done in multiple ways.
One of the city’s main focuses has been to cut down on shoreline erosion. To do this, the city has been working to gradually place rip rap along the shoreline. The large limestone rock helps to halt erosion and allows vegetation to naturally reclaim the shoreline.
“I think what we are doing is, doing what the city can with our (own) property to alleviate the shoreline erosion,” Rosen said.
But a 90-acre lake has a lot of shoreline, and some of the areas are privately owned, meaning the city cannot continue its conservation projects on that land, Rosen said.
The second fix is implementing soil conservation practices out in the watershed.
By using certain practices, farmers can help decrease the amount of top soil they lose to erosion on an annual basis. In turn this, helps to decrease the amount of soil running into Silver Lake. These practices vary but usually consist of using grass waterways, building terraces, dry dams, control structures and grass buffers.
However, the city cannot conduct these projects without the permission of the landowner or farmer. This is why the city is seeking partnerships in the area around Silver Lake.
Why get involved?
Rosen said these partnerships could be as simple as just giving the city access to a section of land. But, in some instances, they could entail more.
For those cases, city officials have considered allocating funding to assist farmers and landowners. City Manager Mark Latham said that the city allocates $100,000 each year to the general maintenance of Silver Lake. But he said, it is unknown at this time how much the city will be able to authorize for these projects.
Hummert said that when farmers apply for help, projects in the watershed will be prioritized based on how much their land contributes to the problem. The areas that directly benefit the watershed and Silver Lake sediment reduction will receive the most preference and potential funding from the city, he said.
Hunsche, the farmer who is hosting the open house, said his family has been implementing soil conservation practices for about 30 years, and when the family learned the city was willing to put money toward the problem, it was a “no-brainer” to pursue a partnership.
“If you have a $10,000 an acre piece of farmland, I would think it is in your best interest, as the owner, to do the best possible job you can to save your soil,” he said.
Hunsche said that he knows many farmers who already use some of these conservation practices. But, he said farmers might also be hesitant to implement newer practices, like planting cover crops, because of the risk involved. For example, during the Hunsche’s plot project, after planting the crops, it did not rain, and they are expecting a terrible yield.
“Now you have $30 an acre invested, and we really didn’t get a benefit,” Hunsche said.
However, even with the losses, Hunsche said paying the costs for continuing these projects still helps the farmer to benefit in the long run.
“All of those items cost extra money. But at the end of the day, if you are losing all of your top soil, you don’t have your farm ground if its running in the ditch,” Hunsche said.
Hunsche also mentioned some farmers are hesitant to partner with the government, because they don’t want to be told how to farm their land. He said his experience with the city helped him realize this was not the case.
“They’re not coming in here wanting to tell you what you can and can’t do. They are not coming in here wanting to bust your chops because you are working a field you shouldn’t be working,” Hunsche said. “They’re just wanting people to make an effort to make some improvements.”
At a glance
What: Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District Cover Crop Field Day is open to the public.
▪ Guest speaker Dr. Karl Williard from Southern Illinois University, who will talk about the effective use of cover crops in preventing nutrient runoff.
▪ Guest speaker Soil scientist Bryan Fitch and soil conservationist Brendaly Rodriguez-Munoz of NRCS will discuss soil health and the nature of sodium soils.
▪ Discussion with Nancy Pals from Gypsyn on Gypsum as a soil conditioner.
▪ Get an update on the Highland Silver Lake Water Quality Initiative from the City of Highland.
▪ Panel discussion will feature local, experienced cover crop farmers, as well as Woody Woodruff from the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.
▪ Get a free lunch.
When: Dec. 7 from 9 a.m. to noon. Registration to the event will be taken on-site, beginning at 8:30 a.m.
Where: Hunsche Farms, located at 12610 Niggli Road in Highland.
For more information: Contact Madison County SWCD at 618-656-7300, ext. 3.