Small watersheds with less than 10 percent impervious land cover are more likely to have better water quality and maintain a higher level of species diversity. These watersheds often have large areas of natural lands, which provide critical ecosystems services such as water purification. However, many of these watersheds are largely composed of agricultural lands, which can have significant impacts as agricultural runoff can contribute nitrogen, phosphorus, and other pollutants to streams, rivers, and wetlands.
Protecting natural lands and restoring corridors between larger natural cores is a critical strategy to maintain the region’s aquatic resources. Critical partners, such as Forest Preserve and Conservation Districts, Land Trusts, and other conservation organizations lead the way in protecting land through direct acquisition or conservation easements. Stewardship activities can help ensure that natural lands continue to filter and clean water resources.
Land use planning techniques play a critical role in protecting and enhancing aquatic systems. Encouraging infill and redevelopment, as well as using clustering or conservation design techniques when development is slated for agricultural and natural lands, can help the region retain open space. Existing natural areas, open spaces, headwaters, high priority lakes and streams, and riparian zones can be protected through land use planning strategies. When new development takes place, it should protect natural drainage and hydrology, minimize the impact of impervious surfaces, and provide natural buffers along waterways and waterbodies. At the site-scale, county and municipal development ordinances can encourage or require the use of green infrastructure practices to minimize the impact of impervious surfaces, improve the quality, and reduce the volume of stormwater runoff.
Agricultural land management policies, such as those outlined in the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, can help improve the quality of agricultural runoff entering our lakes and streams. Such practices include the use of cover crops, terraces, filter and buffer strips, and grass waterways to reduce nutrient and soil loss, rebuild soil organic matter, sequester carbon, and minimize denitrification. Partners like the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and local Soil and Water Conservation Districts promote these techniques. The McHenry County Conservation District already encourages the use of NRCS-approved land resource management plans for farming activities near natural areas.