Amid COVID-19, we must solve the growing threat from extreme weather

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic effect on the lives of billions of people around the world. In Illinois alone, nearly 4,000 people have died and more than one million people have filed for unemployment. While the pandemic is unprecedented, public health experts have always known the threat of a global health crisis from a strain like COVID-19 was possible. One respected academic journal, Clinical Microbiology Reviews, even said in 2007 that the presence of viruses in horseshoe bats was a "time bomb" that "should not be ignored."

The experience over the last several months should get us to rethink our preparedness to all threats that can dramatically affect wide swaths of the public, and that includes the growing threat of extreme weather and its devastating consequences.

As extreme weather has become more intense, more frequent, and more erratic, the economic, public health, and environmental costs have become much more profound.

Last spring, the worst flooding in more than 25 years created economic havoc for landowners and farmers, impacting more than 40 percent of Illinoisans. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, flooding in urban areas alone caused $2.3 billion worth of documented damages between 2007 and 2014, of which $1.24 billion were private claims.

Extreme weather also causes extraordinary environmental damage. Excessive flooding pushes runoff from city streets and waste water treatment plants into our streams and rivers. That runoff includes excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) that destroy aquatic habitats in our area and far beyond. Perhaps the worst example, the runoff from Illinois and the other twelve states in the Mississippi River Basin has created a dead zone where no fish live in a huge area covering thousands of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico.

Excessive runoff can also degrade our drinking water supply, lower property values, and threaten public health. As extreme flooding becomes more commonplace, dangerous levels of sediment, fertilizers, pesticides, debris, and oil can invade our water supply that we need to live healthy lives.

One organization that is helping lead the fight to solve this problem is your local Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). From the McHenry-Lake County SWCD in our area to the Massac County SWCD in Southern Illinois, these organizations provide technical assistance and involve citizens in addressing issues related to flood mitigation, soil conservation, water quality, nutrient management, sustainable land use, and conservation education. Their key goal is to protect our greatest assets - our rich, fertile soils and water resources - through strategic conservation efforts.

SWCDs can't prevent extreme weather, but they can reduce the damage caused by it. SWCDs help suburban homeowners prevent flooding and reduce erosion. They work with local government officials on how to mitigate rainwater runoff and protect our streams, rivers, and water supplies from pollution.

Soil and Water Conservation Districts have helped curb nutrient runoff in dramatic ways, but the fact remains we need greater involvement from the State of Illinois and both political parties. In 2015, the Illinois EPA and Department of Agriculture created the Illinois Nutrient

Loss Strategy to tackle nutrient runoff losses. The Illinois Senate also adopted Senate Resolution 52 in April 2019 which stated its strong support for the strategy, but the state has done little to provide the resources or tangible support to truly solve the problem.

Local SWCDs are joining together with partners across the political spectrum - from the Sierra Club to large agribusiness interests - to support the Nutrient Loss Reduction Act (Senate Bill 3462). The legislation provides funding and operational support for reporting, research, water quality monitoring, and technical assistance to dramatically reduce nutrient pollution.

In this moment, it's hard to think about any crisis beyond COVID-19. But if it has taught us anything, it's that we must constantly work to mitigate the consequences of tangible threats to the public. In this trying time, let's come together to solve the growing threat to our environment and our safety caused by the effects of increasingly extreme weather.

Clean water and healthy soils are too important for our future and the future of our children for us to wait any longer.

• R. Critchell Judd is the Chairman of the McHenry-Lake County Soil & Water Conservation District

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