Who are the decision makers that affect river health? This is a common question facing watershed groups looking for resources, technical expertise, groups willing to partner with them, or ways to meet river conservation goals. As Illinois’ statewide river conservation organization, Prairie Rivers Network can provide expertise and resources, but your organization should be familiar with federal, state, and local entities whose decision affect your river. The following list provides information on agencies, responsibilities, and opportunities for citizens to participate in decision making.

Federal Agencies Most Commonly Having Jurisdiction Over Waterways

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) is responsible for the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and other environmental laws, but in most cases, has delegated authority to states for implementation and enforcement. U. S. EPA has oversight of these programs and ensures that federal laws are met by the states. Illinois is within USEPA Region 5, which is based in Chicago.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with a state office in Champaign and many regional offices with experts on agricultural conservation. There is one NRCS employee in each county, reporting to two different entities – the state NRCS office and the local county Soil and Water Conservation District Board. NRCS is responsible for implementing agricultural conservation programs authorized under federal law. Its staff determines how millions of federal dollars in funding will be spent in Illinois and the programmatic priorities for the funding. The state NRCS has a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) that advises the NRCS administrator on these matters. The TAC consists largely of representatives from the agricultural industry. Watershed groups are encouraged to join the committee to help ensure that conservation programs protect rivers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is a bureau within the Department of the Interior. It is responsible for enforcing federal wildlife laws; protects federally listed endangered species; and manages migratory birds and the National Wildlife Refuge System, national fish hatcheries, fishery resource offices, and field stations.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) is a separate command in the military which reports to the Pentagon. It has more than 35,000 civilian and military personnel with multiple responsibilities and disciplines, including oversight of more than 1,500 water resource and civil works projects. These include more than 500 dams, 11,000 miles of river navigation channels, and 8,500 miles of levees and floodwalls.

The ACE is at a crossroads in its history. Habitat restoration, land acquisition, and easement projects have become an increasing part of its mission, yet maintaining and creating other river-related projects has continued to contribute to loss of habitat and aquatic species.

State Agencies

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) reports to the Governor and is responsible for safeguarding environmental quality and protecting health, welfare, property, and the quality of life of Illinois citizens. The agency is responsible for enforcement of many state and federal laws critical to protecting rivers and streams, including the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972. IEPA has authority, delegated by U.S.EPA, to administer this program, specifically water quality monitoring and reporting, the permitting program which regulates discharge of polluted water into rivers and streams, and funding for nonpoint source grants. For more information on Clean Water Act programs, see the manuals included in this toolkit. Most programs operate from the Bureau of Water.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is a state agency whose mission includes managing public lands and recreational opportunities and providing natural resource related education, science, and assistance. The agency includes the state’s scientific surveys – Water, Geology, Natural History Surveys and the Waste Management Research Center – valuable sources of research and reliable information . Their websites provide many great resources for watershed organizations. The Natural History Survey has several species databases where browsers review records from 145 years of sampling rivers. Other publications and programs are useful in developing conservation messages: the Critical Trends Assessment Project (CTAP), Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, Ecowatch and Riverwatch programs. There is also a quarterly forum for public comments. The Natural Resources Advisory Board meets every three months and offers a comment period during which constituents can bring forward their concerns.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDA) focuses on the agricultural industry, including protecting the health and welfare of livestock animals; horse racing, state and county fairs; regulating seed, feed and fertilizer products; oversight of grain dealers and financial stability of warehouses; and promoting Illinois food and agricultural products. It also includes programs and services to conserve the state’s land and water resources.

University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service (Extension) provides educational programs and research-based information to citizens. Extension serves many different constituencies, but its core concern is delivering the latest University of Illinois research to agricultural and rural communities. It is structured in four broad areas: 4-H Youth Development; Agriculture & Natural Resources; Community & Economic Development; and Nutrition, Family & Consumer Sciences. There are 79 unit offices located throughout Illinois.

Other State Forums

The Illinois River Coordinating Council (IRCC) – chaired by the current Lieutenant Governor, is a diverse group of citizens, grassroots and not-for-profit organizations, state and federal agencies, and river enthusiasts. IRCC coordinates all private and public funding for river restoration in the Illinois River Watershed. The public comment portion of IRCC quarterly meetings offers opportunity to bring concerns before members.

The State Attorney General (AG) – a statewide elected constitutional officer – has an Environmental Division with several different functions. You may want to bring certain environmental conditions to the AG’s attention. An Environmental Litigation Division, whose mission is to enforce state environmental laws, pursues cases with the goal of forcing polluters, not taxpayers, to pay the cost of cleanups. An Environmental Crimes Bureau and Environmental Investigator’s Network designate and train local law enforcement officers to identify and investigate polluters.

Local Entities

County Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) were formed during the Dust Bowl years under President Franklin Roosevelt to conserve soil and water resources. They were originally conceived to encompass entire watersheds, but political forces intervened and the districts were formed on a county level. Today, SWCDs are public bodies that administer Federal Farm Bill conservation programs and prioritize natural resource concerns. It is important to have a working relationship with SWCDs, as a great deal of program funding goes through their county offices. SWCDs are governed by a five-member board, with most, if not all, seats filled by farmers. Watershed activists should consider attending monthly SWCD board meetings and running for positions on the SWCD board.

Drainage Districts are small units of government created by an 1879 law to drain wetlands so that the land can be farmed. Each district is governed by a three panel board, usually of farmers, that are either appointed or elected. Districts help control stormwater, but many of their maintenance methods are outdated and can cause great damage to water quality and wildlife habitat. They remove shade-giving trees along rivers and streams, increasing water temperatures; dredge stream beds and destroy aquatic habitat, impacting fish and other species; and increase habitat fragmentation by disconnecting streamside forested corridors. For more information, visit Prairie Rivers’ Agricultural Drainage.

Who Makes Your Local Decisions?

Who are your county board members and county board chair? You can either call the county board administrative office in your county, using a phonebook, or use a search engine to see if your county board has a web presence.