<< Back to Research Projects

Projecting Source Water Quality in Christian County, Illinois: Analysis of the Opportunities for Agriculture-Utility Cooperative Agreements

PI Stephen P. Gasteyer, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI;  through August 2008, Assistant Professor of Community Development and Leadership, Department of Human and Community Development, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801.

Conducted from May 2006-August 2008 with funding from the Dudley Smith Initiative

Purpose and objectives of research

This research project investigated the collaboration between community water systems and the surrounding farming populations to protect source water quality.  In particular, we will investigated:

  1. The extent to which community water systems in Christian County identified actual or potential impairments to source water quality from farming practices on surrounding farmland;
  2. The extent to which they worked with the surrounding farming populations to implement structural barriers or alternative practices to mitigate or prevent impairments;
  3. Who have been the players in these arrangements (farmers, water utilities, community government, cooperative extension, SWCD, IL Rural Water Association, etc.) and how did that process work;
  4. How they have paid for landscape amendments (e.g. riparian buffers) or alternative practices (generally through targeted USDA conservation grants);
  5. The impacts of these actions; and
  6. Their sustainability over time (especially given the short lifespan of government conservation programs). 

Participants (researchers and non-researchers)

Researchers PI: Stephen Gasteyer; Graduate Research Assistant: Jennifer Carrera;  Co-PIs:  Gary Letterly, University of Illinois Extension, Taylorville, IL.  Anne Silvis, University of Illinois Extension, Urbana, IL.  Subjects  Those interviewed included representatives of local government, citizens’ committees, non-profit organizations, for-profit organizations, water managers, land-owners, and farmers.   In all, we carried out 48 interviews .

Methods Utilized

We researched these issues through: text analysis of existing project documents, reports and local media; interviews with key informants throughout the county; site visits; and either phone or face to face interviews with stakeholders using a snowball sampling approach. 

The results included: a) documentation of the strategies used to protect source water by communities and agriculture in Christian County; b) the varied processes of implementation of those strategies; c) assessment of the success of those various initiatives; d) assessment of their sustainability over time; e) models for community/agriculture alliances to protect source water quality; f) and, ultimately, proposals for pilot projects to implement the best practices implied in these models. 

Activities and Timeline

May-July 2006The graduate research assistant and I conducted an initial tour of the area with Gary Letterly.  We also met with key stakeholders during this period – including representatives of local government, regulatory agencies, and non-profit organizations.  We began the process of gathering data for the study. 

August-October 2006:  Using local media and other reports, we developed a map of networks and relationships related to water quality protection in Christian County. 

November 2006-January 2007:  Carried out interviews with Famers and other stakeholders in the Lake Taylorville watershed to understand the Taylorville process. 

February-April 2007:  Based on emerging issues as we were doing research, in consultation with Chris Schroeder and Gary Letterly, began to investigate water quality issues related to energy development in Christian County.   We did this through following media, but also through interviews with key officials and stakeholders.  We simultaneously finalized interviews in Lake Taylorville.

May-July 2007:  Analysis of work completed to date and work to add and compare to other work done in the watershed.  Continue interviews with water stakeholders.  Presentation of Taylorville Lake findings at Soil and Water Conservation Society annual conference.   

August-October 2007:  Began work to analyze small community water issues and protection strategies in Christian County.  This involves analysis of Source Water Assessment documents from Illinois EPA, but also interviews of key stakeholders in small communities throughout the county. 

November2007 –January 2008:  Continue with interviews and analysis of key stakeholders in community water quality initiatives in Christian County.  Consider implications of role of unsewered communities in water quality concerns in Christian County. 

February—April 2008:  Analyze findings from community water portion of the study.   Complete analysis of community water and energy development in Christian County.  Present findings at the Midwest Sociological Society in St. Louis, MO. 

May—July 2008:  Finalize research and prepare manuscripts for publication and presentation.  

August—October 2008: Present community water findings at Rural Sociological Society, Manchester, NH.   Last of research dollars expended. 

November 2008—January 2009:  Preparation and submission of manuscripts. 

Results, findings, conclusions, and emerging questions

This research responded to the question: what are the processes most likely to protect the quality of critical community water sources.   Many in regulatory agencies believe that source water most likely protected when adequate programs are in place to ensure that farmers see it as in their self interest to forgo cultivation (H1).  The watershed management literature argues that water quality is best protected through processes that engage stakeholders and build trust and reciprocity (H2).   This research tests these two contradictory hypotheses.  A third hypothesis that comes out of the watershed literature (H3) is that efforts to protect water quality through achieving consensus and cooperation are more likely to be successful when the body in question is surface water versus groundwater.  

  1. H1 and H2:  Our findings indeed indicate that water quality protection at the watershed level requires the development of social processes that rebuild trust and understanding.  Building on previous research in the Taylorville Lake watershed, we found that many farmers held some resentment about how the lake was established.  Indeed, one study indicated that a significant majority of farmers in the watershed felt that they bore no responsibility in actions to ensure the vitality and water quality in the lake.  They felt the community of Taylorville, which draws source water from the lake, should pay any such costs.    Our research interviewed both farmers and members of a citizens’ committee that was established to address necessary landowner actions to mitigate siltation and other impairments of the quality of the lake.  They visited farmers’ one-by-one and eventually acquired easements for siltation dams throughout the watershed is a great success.  The trick, we learned repeatedly in interviews, was the ability of the committee to allow farmers to voice their disgruntlement at the process through which the lake was established and to recognize the farmers as experts on their land.  Though the committee had estimated where easements were needed, they would defer to farmers about whether those designations actually made sense.  While there were a few who opposed the Taylorville Lake impairment mitigation initiative, most worked with the committee, and in some cases even made recommendations that took more land out of production to ensure the success of the siltation dams.  While the citizens’ committee had authority to use imminent domain to secure land, the committee did not exercise this authority because it was more important and beneficial to achieve consensus on the land to be taken out of the production with the farmers and landowners.  It is arguable that water quality concerns raised by considerable opposition to an industrial dairy operation in Stonington the year prior to our research may have raised the consciousness about water issues. 
  2. A critical related piece is the important role of local government in facilitating this initiative.  The citizens’ committee was enabled by a mayor who made water quality protection his issue.  Under his administration, the initiative to revitalize Lake Taylorville flourished.  However, once he was voted out of office, the initiative ground on at a much slower pace.  While social processes of trust are important, so too, is old fashioned political capital. 
  3. Additionally, while there was significant interest in engaging farmers and land owners, we heard little except for passing comments about the other major source of nutrients, the two unsewered communities on the Lake.  While people we interviewed voiced concern about the impact of these communities, no one we talked to was involved in working directly with residents or elected officials in these communities.    The role of unsewered communities may be an interesting question for future research.  (I will discuss this insight as part of the discussion of future research.)
  4. H3: In research on the processes to protect source water in all community water systems in Christian County, we found that groundwater and surface water communities were equally likely to engage in broader processes to protect water quality.  The critical components involved the existence of water operators who were sufficiently embedded in the broader community (including the town and surrounding farmers) to have an ongoing relationship with surrounding farmers with land of critical importance in protecting the water supply.  There are three additional points of interest here. 
    1. First, given the importance of the aforementioned  longstanding relationship, water operators who were successful at protecting water supply did utilize carrots and sticks to encourage farmers to implement land retirement or best management practices.  The best example of this was one operator who provided the farmers and land owners in question with well testing and advice about on-site treatment to ensure good water quality.  He would then threaten to stop the service if the farmer or land owner proposed planting acres that had been protected by a conservation program. 
    2. Second, while this personal relationship was of importance, it was critical that farm programs existed for the farmer to receive some compensation for lost production. 
    3. Third, this set of relationships was contingent on a local government that was sufficiently interested in water quality protection.  In some communities, we found little interest in issues of water quality, and disgruntled water operators who felt they were not at liberty to expend the necessary resources to create the relationships necessary to protect the water supply. 
  5. We additionally found that the growing renewed interest in energy development nationally had an impact on water quality protection issues in the context of Christian County.  In Taylorville, proposals to reestablish coal extraction on the one hand involved explicit consideration of facility siting and water supply.  On the other hand, we found considerable concern among farmers and others about the potential negative impacts of underground coal, methane, and oil extraction in the area.  While the proposed energy projects were generally supported because of presumed economic benefits, the impacts of extraction of these resources on water quality became part of the counter-discourse within the community.  Additionally, at least in one small community, while efforts between the town and surrounding farmers to protect water quality had been quite successful, local energy extraction initiatives were thought to pose a significant risk to the community water source.   It is notable that it is in the context of this research that the dairy operation was actually raised. 

Presentations and Manuscripts under Development from this Research

Carrera, Jennifer and Stephen Gasteyer.  “The Role of Embeddedness of Rural Water Operators in the Implementation of Source Water Protection Efforts.” (Presented at the Rural Sociological Society Annual  Meeting, July 28-30, 2008, Manchester, NH).  Under Review at  Rural Sociology

Carrera, Jennifer and Stephen Gasteyer.   “Rural Community Response to Energy Development and Its Impacts on Local Water.”  (Presented at the Midwest Sociological Society Annual  Meeting, March 28-30, 2008, St. Louis, MO) .  Under Review at Society and Natural Resources

Gasteyer, Stephen, Gary Letterly and Jennifer Carrera.  “Beyond Payments: the Role of Community Farmer Relationships in Adoption of Best Management Practices to Protect Water Quality.”  (Presented at Soil and Water Conservation Society Annual Conference, July 19-22, 2007, Tampa, FL.)

Gasteyer, Stephen and Jennifer Carrera. “Rural Water Operators and Source Water Protection” (Presented at the Illinois Section American Water Works Association Workshop on Source Water Protection.  October 29, 2008, Rochelle, IL.)  Under Review in the Journal of the American Water Works Association. 

Opportunities for Further Research

  1. Our research indicates that while personal interactions are important in protecting water quality.   However, these personal relationships must be backed up by existing programs that can compensate land owners and farmers.  Research is needed to understand the impact of changes to the Farm Bill on water quality protection at the local level
  2. Local governance was also a critical component in water quality protection.  Further research is needed on what are the components that lead to the effective governance structures at the community and watershed level.  What kinds of training programs that would improve community capacity in this area and how might they be implemented? 
  3. Our research found that unsewered communities constitute a missing piece in conceptualizing water quality protection.  More research is needed to better understand these communities and their dynamics.  They range from incorporated and unincorporated low-income towns or settlements, but also include newer sub-divisions.  The research should seek to reconcile this data with a fairly well developed set of data on alternative sanitation options.
  4. More research is needed on the processes and structures that might enable the widest possible benefits from energy development while best mitigating negative impacts.  This is very important in traditional energy producing areas like Christian County as the US refocuses its efforts on domestic energy production.