Cooperatove Conservation Project

Illinois River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP)

Balancing Nature and Commerce on the Illinois River

Location: Midwest/Northern High Plains Region: Illinois

Project Summary: The Illinois River Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) helps farmers improve water quality in the Illinois River and restore bottomland habitat through conservation easements.
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Example of wildlife habitat enhancement on the Giebelhausen Farm. (FSA Photo)
Resource Challenge

The Illinois River travels 273 miles across North-central Illinois to its confluence with the Mississippi River. Once teeming with waterfowl, paddlefish, sturgeon, and mussels, it rose and fell with the seasons, depositing rich soil on the land. 

Long since confined by dams and levees, 85 percent of the river’s wetlands are gone. Some duck populations have dropped by 90 percent and 65 percent of the river’s fish populations have declined.  Erosion deposits 13 million tons of sediment in the river, degrading water quality and filling navigation channels. 

Despite the grim portrait, the National Research Council believes the Illinois is one of three large watersheds in the lower 48 states with the best potential for ecological recovery. Today, the river is an economic powerhouse and critical transportation system. More than 700 million bushels of corn travel the river by barge each year. Ninety percent of the state’s residents live within the river’s watershed.

Examples of Key Partners

USDA Farm Service Agency, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Illinois Department of Agriculture, Illinois Department of Environmental Protection, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois conservation Districts, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, and farm producers.

Results and Accomplishments

The USDA, State agencies, conservation districts, the farm community, and private groups are combining Federal and State cost-share dollars under the Conservation Reserve Program to spur voluntary conservation practices. Incentives help farmers reduce sediment and nutrients reaching the River and its tributaries, while maintaining or enhancing the region’s economy.

The Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and other CREP partners are important contributors to the Illinois project. The State selected the project area, the conservation issues, and the conservation practices to be established.

Already, 110,843 acres of bottomlands are being restored, which is expected to reduce soil erosion by 2.5 million tons per year. Aerial surveys show signifi cant increases in waterfowl; more than 70,000 ducks were found on a recently restored section. The project will also reduce floods and reduce the cost of dredging water treatment.

Partners contribute valuable time and resources to supplement USDA funds. The State has supplied more than $50 million in cost-share and other funding, including the purchase of permanent easements. The Farm Bureau provides outreach funds, and local conservation districts deliver technical assistance. The Nature Conservancy is assessing best management practices in the CREP project area to quantify the environmental benefi ts of these practices.


Improving water quality and wildlife habitat through State conservation easements.

Project Contact
Jim Herbert
Illinois State Director
The Nature Conservancy



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