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Field Day at ISU Farm focuses on watershed progress and strategies

Agronomists, farmers and researchers met at the Illinois State University Farm in Lexington on Tuesday to discuss Lake Bloomington-Evergreen Lake (LB-EL) watershed planning efforts, along with farm conservation practices that can help reach watershed goals.

While much more work remains to be done to reduce the loss of field nutrients (namely, nitrates and phosphorus) and sediment from the watershed, some progress has been made in the past two years.

That’s according to Jeff Boeckler, principal water resources specialist for Northwater Consulting, an independent firm hired by the City of Bloomington in 2020 to study the sensitive watershed area and determine an action plan to greatly reduce nitrate and phosphorus levels. The study is primarily funded through an Environmental Protection Agency Section 319 Clean Water Act program grant.

 Jeff Boeckler speaks
Emily Bollinger
Jeff Boeckler is principal water resources specialist for Northwater Consulting, an independent firm hired by the City of Bloomington in 2020 to study the sensitive watershed area and determine an action plan to greatly reduce nitrate and phosphorus levels.

“We’re developing this (plan) with a keen understanding of the watershed. Rather than sitting at a desk and plugging away at a computer, we have gone out and done a lot of assessments in the field,” said Boeckler, whose company is also contracted to develop watershed reclamation programs at Lake Decatur and other vital watershed areas across Illinois and the Midwest. “Both reservoirs suffer from very, very high nitrate loading – quite a bit higher than many of the other reservoirs we are working in all over the state. However, phosphorus and sediment concentrations seem to be holding steady or slightly trending down.”

An opportunity to achieve positive conservation results in the 74,000-acre Lake Bloomington-Evergreen Lake watershed does exist, Boeckler said, by employing a combination of effective conservation practices in the most strategic locations. Stemming the sources of the most egregious nutrient breaches along the watershed – most of which originate from eroding, privately-owned farmland – will be necessary to prevent costly capital investments for infrastructure improvements in the near future, according to the water resources specialist.

“The most cost-effective way to get this massive loading down is through cover crops. Roughly 40,000 acres could go into both watersheds, and this alone could reduce 32% of our nitrogen load, about 18% of phosphorus and roughly 30% of the entire sediment load,” said Boeckler.

However, many stumbling blocks remain before cover crops – which are offseason alternate crops such as cereal rye or oats that can be grown in between seasonal corn and soybean rotations to help retain nutrients in fields – can gain wide acceptance from farmers and landowners. These hurdles include production expenses, problems terminating certain cover crops, and minimal government financial and technical support.

“I don’t think farmers have a problem with cover crops and we understand their benefits, but the cash outlay is an issue,” said J. Gordon Bidner, a Carlock farmer who attended Tuesday’s Farm Bureau-sponsored Field Day. “I really think farmers want to be a part of the action, but at the same time they are caught in a cost squeeze.”

Bidner feels that government programs should provide upwards of $90 per acre to incentivize producers to embrace cover crops on their farms. Boeckler agreed that farmers should be compensated at least at the level of cost of production to plant cover crops. In Decatur, Northwater is working to secure extra incentive funding for farmers through a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation program grant. The grant money would be matched through a cost-share agreement, with additional incentive funds provided through public-private partnerships.

“It’s really important to know that there are numerous grant programs available if you just ask for them. If you don’t ask for it, you don’t get it,” said Boeckler, who recommends farmers pursue USDA regional conservation practice program grants to help defray the cost of implementing cover crops or other approved soil and water conservation practices.

Boeckler estimated that it costs more than $550 to reduce a pound of nitrogen from entering a watershed, $495 to reduce a pound of phosphorus and around $347 to reduce a ton of sediment through the use of cover crops. It will require an investment totaling around $25 million to bring both reservoirs up to water quality targets set forth in the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) through cover crop use alone, he said.

A carbon sequestration test plot at the ISU Farm, located just north of Bloomington-Normal near Lexington.
Emily Bollinger
A carbon sequestration test plot at the ISU Farm, located just north of Bloomington-Normal near Lexington.

“Another (conservation) option we are looking at are anchored, floating man-made wetlands. These slow down sediment loss before entering the main body of the reservoir, and also reduce or uptake nutrients,” said Boeckler.

Less expensive options for reducing nutrient and sediment loss from fields include saturated buffers, or subsurface drainage control structures that divert the flow of water and sediment from farm tile outlets to perforated distribution pipes running along the buffer. Tuesday’s tour of the ISU Farm highlighted the research being done with saturated buffers and covers, including a relatively new cover crop – pennycress, an oilseed which as of recently can be utilized as a cash crop.

It is important for municipalities and the farming community, the two primary contributors to the Hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico, to work more closely together to solve issues relating to nitrogen and phosphorus contamination of waterways, according to Lauren Lurkins, director of environmental policy for the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“These are the two point sources, wastewater treatment and agriculture,” she said. “We are trying every creative idea to keep farmers from losing the ability (due to government regulation) to innovate and really find solutions.”

Since 2015, the state farm bureau has contributed $2.4 million in grant money for farmers to adapt innovative soil and water conservation practices on their farms. The program has been adapted by 70 county farm bureaus across Illinois, according to Lurkins.

A surprise visitor to the Field Day was Jerry Costello, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA). During his brief stopover, Costello encouraged McLean County farmers to jump onboard the cover crop bandwagon as farmer incentives continue to increase at both federal and state levels.

“Nutrient loss reduction is so important to the state in so many ways; obviously, to our economy and farming,” Costello said. “There are many things we are working on, some of which I can’t give you the specifics of right now. But I can assure you that we will hopefully have some good things to announce in the near future (regarding cover crop and conservation program incentives).”

Costello touted the state’s cover crop incentive program, launched in 2019, which pays cash incentives towards a producer’s crop insurance fees for every acre of cover crops they plant.

“In 2021 the program went from 50,000 acres to 100,000 acres. It’s something that’s caught on to the point that in 2019 it took us 12 days to fill (applications for) 50,000 (maximum) acres, and in 2020 it took us 12 hours to fill 50,000 acres. In 2021 it took six hours to fill 100,000 acres, and we had 187,000 acres applied for,” said Costello.

The Illinois NLRS, established in 2015 by a working group of conservationists and agronomists and adapted by the IDOA, set goals for the state to reduce its phosphorus load by 25 percent and its nitrate-nitrogen load by 15 percent by 2025. The eventual target is a 45 percent reduction in the loss of these nutrients to waterways.

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Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.
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