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Illinois Nutrient Runoff Reduction Strategy Has Mixed Results

Point Pleasant Wetland Middle Fork River Forest Preserve.jpg
Courtesy: Champaign County Forest Preserve District
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State of Illinois EPA
Illinois waterway runoff of phosphorus and nitrates increased in the last two years in spite of reduction efforts.
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A new assessment of the state strategy to reduce nutrient runoff shows mixed results.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has released its third biennial Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Report. The overall amount of measured nutrients actually went up the last two years — phosphorous by 35% and nitrate runoff by 13% — compared to a baseline period measured between 1980 and 1996. The Illinois River watershed, which drains the largest part of Illinois, had an increase as well, but substantially below the total state average.

Those contribute to the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that has so little oxygen in the water, it is difficult to support life. Algae feeding on the nitrogen and phosphorous bloom and use up the available oxygen.

One complicating factor to reduction efforts, the report notes, was that total runoff from Illinois waterways increased substantially over the study period. And with higher-than-average flow, there will be higher-than-average amounts of chemicals carried downstream. Yet, the fact remains the nutrients are there in amounts available to be carried.

“The trajectory will not meet the goals of the strategy,” said Kris Reynolds, Midwest regional director of the ag environmental group, American Farmland Trust.

The nutrient reduction strategy calls for a 15% drop in nitrate runoff and 25% in phosphorous by 2025, and a 45% decrease in both by 2045.

“While modest increases in conservation activities by the agricultural sector were reported, it is clear that Illinois is struggling to get enough conservation farming practices on the ground to stem the flow of nutrients from the soil. Illinois needs a strategy that shows us how we will get the landscape changes and farming practices we need on the ground, not just the math for how many acres of each practice we need,” said Catie Gregg, ag programs specialist for the National Wildlife Federation affiliate Illinois Prairie Rivers Network.

Bright spots

There are bright spots. Awareness of the issues surrounding nitrate phosphorous and sediment that contribute to the Gulf dead zone grew, according to the report.

And the report said between 2019 and 2020, agriculture sector partners reported spending almost $27 million implementing the strategy, apart from government cost-sharing program money.

“Since these efforts began in 2015, stakeholders across the state have partnered in incredible ways to further progress on activities within agriculture, point sources and urban storm water that reduce nutrient loss and improve water quality,” said Lauren Lurkins, Illinois Farm Bureau director of environmental policy. “One of our biggest takeaways is that these efforts gained strength despite historic rainfall in 2019 and a global pandemic in 2020.”

The Farm Bureau emphasized its education efforts and spending about best practices, but acknowledged work needs to continue.

“This is a complicated environmental issue across our country, and especially here in the Midwest,” said Lurkins. “There's always more room to go, but what we do know is that we must continue to implement the practices on the ground.”

Yet public education and adoption lags even within the agriculture community: “43% of farmers reported being somewhat to very knowledgeable about the strategy; 66% of farmers reported being somewhat to very knowledgeable about cover crops,” said the biennial report

In all, 1.4 million acres of cover crops were planted in 2019 — a 135% increase from 2011. Farmers also reported that 11.2 million acres of cropland received reduced phosphorus fertilizer application rates in 2019 compared to 2011.

The Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association said its survey of members found 89% of farmers used approved University of Illinois application soil temperature standards for ammonia nitrogen fertilizer use, and nearly that many used the proper amount and inhibitors to fix the nitrogen in the soil.

Kris Reynolds of American Farmland Trust said there are several reasons the nutrient loss reduction strategy hasn't made more progress since 2015.

"One of the challenges is that cover crops and no till are practices that take additional management. Right now, we're in the middle of harvest and our focus is on getting the crops in from the fields, but we also have to make time for planting cover crops and that can certainly be a challenge," said Reynolds.

Cover crop adoption, he said, is not fast enough to meet the timetable to get to between 30% and 50% cover crop usage.

"We have to see more than a 1-2% increase in the adoption of cover crops and the adoption of no till. We need to see more like a 5-8% increase over a two-year time period," said Reynolds.

Much more than that, Reynolds said, and there might be difficulties providing enough cover crop seed for farmers to plant.

He said funding for other conservation practices needs to increase and farmers still need better education about practices that reduce nutrient runoff.

“The key is to get farmers the technical resources they need to adopt. This state for the first time in many years has increased conservation technical assistance in the form of increased conservation funding through the Illinois Department of Agriculture and we have been lagging behind our neighboring states for many years,” said Reynolds.

The Prairie Rivers Network said assistance is not enough, and mandates are needed.

“Without the state setting specific annual or biennial goals and strategies about how they expect to meet them, we will never reduce fertilizer pollution,” said Prairie Rivers Network Agricultural Programs Specialist Catie Gregg.

Municipal runoff also is a big source of phosphorous, and cities are facing tougher water treatment standards to reduce their share of runoff. The report noted significant increases in municipal spending on wastewater treatment facilities to meet compliance with federal mandates.

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