The Agricultural Water Institute – In the Beginning
AWI was formed as an Illinois not-for-profit corporation in February 2003. Its origins can be traced to 1984 when Mayor Gary Anderson of Decatur, Illinois, appointed a Lake Decatur Sedimentation Control Committee. The committee recommended a selective dredging program and City financial support for soil conservation in the watershed. To the City’s great credit, that recommendation was followed. Decatur continues to provide funds to the Macon County Soil & Water Conservation District for staff and cost-share projects.
The idea for AWI itself was included in the 1988 Decatur Advantage II community strategic plan. It recommended “creating an interdisciplinary Agricultural Watershed Institute for research and demonstration projects on erosion reduction, nutrient management, sediment removal and reuse, and other related subjects.” At that time, Bill Blank was on the Decatur Advantage steering committee and Steve John was a City Councilman.
A few years ago they decided the time was right for creation of the Institute. At the national level, the focus on nonpoint sources of pollution – including farm run-off – is intensifying. Locally, water supply and water quality continue to be important concerns. With funding from ADM and Staley and input from a city-farm-industry steering committee, they prepared a White Paper on Creation of the Agricultural Watershed Institute. It addresses AWI’s mission, goals, initial research agenda, and organizational and funding plans.
AWI’s mission is to conduct research and educational programs on practices and policies to improve water quality; maintain or restore ecosystem health; and conserve and manage land and water resources in agricultural watersheds.
There are several features that make AWI unique and help to define the niche we will fill. Perhaps the key feature is that AWI is a freestanding research Institute rooted in a specific watershed. Research organizations generally do not have the close ties that AWI has to a watershed and its people. Conversely, few watershed-based groups stress the performance of applied research as their core mission. The Upper Sangamon is AWI’s home watershed, our laboratory without walls.