Rural Residents' Cooperative Response To Water Crisis Now A Model

October 01, 1998

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Residents of a Central Illinois watershed responded so well to a crisis of atrazine-contaminated water that their cooperative effort, which was studied by the University of Illinois, is being turned into a national model for local conservation planning.

In late 1991, the 14,000 people in the Otter Lake watershed south of Springfield were told that the atrazine level in their water supply was more than double the 3-parts-per-billion standard set by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). Atrazine is a herbicide widely used by farmers but restricted since 1993 by the federal EPA because of potential health problems such as cancer.

After initial efforts to lower the level failed, the IEPA in August 1993 put a moratorium on water-line extensions and new hookups. Instead of bickering, residents formed the Otter Lake Resource Planning Committee, studied the risks of atrazine, discussed possible remedies, met with government officials and wrote a plan for reducing atrazine and other resource problems in the watershed. A year later, the moratorium was lifted because of the success of the cooperative local response.

Their plan called for a voluntary reduction in atrazine use, the installation of on-the-ground measures to reduce runoff into Otter Lake, and increased carbon filtering. A cost-sharing plan spread the expense among the towns, farmers, and state and federal governments. Their plan worked.

U. of I. researchers interviewed residents, farmers and officials of Virden, a town centrally located within the watershed, finding a strong feeling of solidarity between non-farmers and farmers. More than two-thirds of both groups believed atrazine levels should be reduced, despite an intense debate on atrazine's health risk.

"Their action says something about rural community culture," said Sonya Salamon, a professor of family studies. "Even though the community could have named a scapegoat -- the farmers -- it instead was quite supportive. The community cared too much about the farmers' well-being to react against them. Farmers led a planning effort whose solution shared both the actions taken and the costs with the community. Urban people would probably just say farmers did it so they should pay for it."

The study -- by Salamon, U. of I. agricultural economist Richard L. Farnsworth and Jody A. Rendziak of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Champaign -- was published in the June issue of Rural Sociology.

What was learned from the Otter Lake planning effort will be used nationally by the NRCS as a guide to help other communities plan for their watersheds, Farnsworth said.

In not-yet published NRCS teaching materials that document the Otter Lake success, researchers write: "A community's core values and culture permeate every facet of locally led planning, shaping its response to crises such as atrazine in the drinking water or flooding. The advantage of locally led planning is that it builds on these core beliefs and cultural practices, rather than ignores them."
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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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