As part of the state’s ongoing commitment to reduce nutrient losses, the directors of the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the release of the state’s second Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Biennial Report. This report describes actions taken in the state during the last two years to reduce nutrient losses and influence positive changes in nutrient loads over time.
The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) is one of many state strategies developed and implemented over the 31-state Mississippi River basin that are intended to improve water quality. Illinois’ strategy provides a framework for reducing both point and non-point nutrient losses to improve the state’s overall water quality, as well as that of water leaving Illinois and making its way down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.
“The report illustrates all facets of agriculture coming together to promote best management practices,” said John Sullivan, IDOA director. “The next step is transitioning more farmers from awareness of nutrient loss practices to application.”
“The 2019 biennial report describes some the dramatic reductions in total phosphorus discharges from some of the largest wastewater treatment facilities in the state,” said Illinois EPA director John Kim. “We’ve already nearly met one of our 2025 goals of 25% reduction of phosphorus from the point source sector, and we look forward to continued nutrient reductions.”
These reductions are a direct result of investments by wastewater treatment facilities to meet more stringent nutrient permit limits. Illinois officials expect to see continued progress in meeting long-term goals as additional planned wastewater treatment facility upgrades occur.
Illinois NLRS was first released in 2015 with the long-term goal of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus in Illinois waterways by 45%. Interim goals include reducing the amount of phosphorus by 25% and nitrogen by 15% by 2025.
Implementation efforts are led by strategy partners in the Policy Working Group and other sector committees, guided by IDOA and Illinois EPA, with assistance provided by University of Illinois Extension. Illinois NLRS is part of a broader effort being implemented by states in the Mississippi River basin to reduce the amount of nutrients entering the Gulf of Mexico, which causes a “dead zone” of oxygen-depleted water.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG), working closely with IDOA, Illinois EPA, University of Illinois Extension and other partners, developed and produced the biennial report. Eliana Brown, IISG stormwater specialist, led the effort throughout.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.
This article is based on a press release from IDOA and Illinois EPA. Contacts are Krista Lisser (217)558-1546 and Kim Biggs (217)558-1536.
Nutrients that flow into lakes and streams from urban and rural environments are a key cause of algal blooms, which can then crash into low-oxygen ‘dead zones.’ In fact, Illinois, with its many acres of farmland and its major municipalities, is a key contributor to nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers at the Illinois State Water Survey set out to better calculate nutrient levels in waterways, the dynamics of when nutrient pollution happens, and what this means in the face of a changing climate.
With support from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG), hydrologist Momcilo Markus and his team looked at years of data from 14 rural and suburban watersheds in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio to get a better understanding of the factors that influence pollution rates.
Markus’ work improved the accuracy of estimating nutrient loading from limited monitoring data. Typically, for most waterways, monitoring is infrequent—several data points are extrapolated for a year. The researchers used a rich Ohio data source where there is as much as 38 years of daily measures from 10 streams. This served as a Rosetta stone of sorts, and by modifying their calculations, they were able to make estimates of nutrient loading in Illinois and the Midwest more accurate.
“We adjusted our model to reflect reality as measured in real data,” explained Markus.
This new model could help scientists better measure of the amount of nutrients leaving the 13 watersheds prioritized in the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. In addition to continuous statewide tracking by eight U.S. Geological Survey super gauges for roughly the past year, natural resource managers have historic data that can be analyzed using Markus’ model to estimate long-term trends in Illinois’ statewide contributions to the Gulf.
The comprehensive study also reveals key patterns in nitrate, phosphorus, and sediment pollution. For example, although there is more precipitation in summer, river flows and nutrient levels are at their highest in winter and spring, when there are fewer plants to help prevent erosion and absorb nutrients. In fact, the five largest river flow events in a watershed carry more than half of the nutrients that run off it each year.
“A wet year in terms of nutrient loading is defined by large storm events,” said Markus. “More precipitation, on average, in a given year doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in pollution. The increase is tied to heavy precipitation.”
The consensus of climate models shows that by mid-century in northern Illinois, there may well be a 15-30 percent increase in intensity and frequency of heavy storms.
For Illinois EPA, IDOA, and others charged with implementing the state’s nutrient strategy and reducing nutrient loading to the Gulf by 45 percent, these findings could lead to a more accurate understanding of the impact of their efforts. Farmers, city officials, and wastewater treatment plants across the Prairie State have been ramping up practices that reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss since the state began work on the strategy in 2012.
At the same time, government agencies, university researchers, and others are keeping an eye on the amount of nutrients leaving the state to help determine whether current strategy practices are enough to reach reduction goals. Understanding the critical role high-intensity storms play in nutrient loads could help ensure the value of these efforts isn’t obscured by a wet year. And knowing that these types of storms will be more frequent gives the state lead time to adapt strategy practices to the changing climate.
“What we design today, may not be sufficient in the future,” said Markus. “We can speculate that there will be more pollution, so management strategies that work today may not down the road.”
Anjanette Riley is a contributing author.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.
IISG is excited to welcome four student interns this summer to help our specialists with everything from needs assessments, to outreach, to strategy facilitating, to economic valuations—and more. These four will spend 12 weeks working closely with a Sea Grant specialist on the issues affecting the Great Lakes.
Green Infrastructure Workforce Intern Margaret Schneemann
Located at Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning
Jordan is a senior at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin majoring in geospacial science with a minor in geographic information systems.
He will be conducting a needs assessment and market analysis to ensure that training and workforce development efforts are in line with the Calumet region’s occupational and employment needs, leveraging the relationship gap between stakeholders and the community, and making sure all aspects (skill gaps, design standards, municipal regulations and the regional environment policies) are being looked at when achieving a Green Infrastructure program
Community Sustainability Intern Kara Salazar
Located at Purdue University
Abigail graduated in May from the University of Illinois in natural resources and environmental sciences. She will be pursuing a Master’s degree in August 2016 in agriculture education at the University of Illinois.
During her summer internship, Abigail will collaboratively develop new extension education and training materials (case studies, fact sheets, excerpts of guide books) related to public spaces, rain gardens, and watershed management topics. She will also be help campus specialists deliver extension and training programs to communities across Indiana.
Abigail has hit the ground running in the two weeks since her internship began. She has attended the inaugural train the trainer program for the Enhancing the Value of Public Spaces program, supported the first meeting and launch of the advisory board and program development effort for the new Natural Resources Leadership Program, attended strategic planning meetings for IISG in Chicago, and helped to host a community meeting to start the Enhancing the Value of Public Spaces program in Columbus, Indiana.
Science Writer and Nutrient Strategy Facilitator Intern
Anjanette Riley, Eliana Brown, and Lisa Merrifield
Located at University of Illinois
Ashley comes to us from the agricultural communications program at Illinois State University, where she is about to start her senior year.
This summer, Ashley will wear two hats: a science writer and nutrient strategy facilitator. For her part in the communications team, Ashley oversees the Illinois Water blog, writing news and feature articles on IWRC research projects and important water issues facing the state.
She will also work closely with IWRC and IISG’s Eliana Brown to help facilitate Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy implementation and support Eliana’s other stormwater and water quality outreach efforts.
Water Pricing Intern Margaret Schneemann
Located at Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning
Lauren is a recent graduate from Northern Michigan University with a major in environmental science, a concentration in natural resources and a minor in sustainability.
She will be working on the Ecosystem Services Project helping with organizing tables of articles and writing the literature reviews on their economic valuations.
Lauren will also be on the water rates database where she will be working with water rates and pricing ordinances.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension.
The bacteria living in these long, narrow trenches remove nitrogen carried through farm tile lines through a process known as denitrificaiton. The result is an average annual nitrogen reduction of 25 percent for roughly 10 years—and with minimal maintenance for the farmer.
But don’t just take our word for it. Hear what University of Illinois researchers Mark David and Laura Christianson had to say about this conservation agriculture practice this video.
This has been a good year for Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Working with our many partners, big projects reached their culmination, in some cases providing researchers and decision makers new ways to access data. And the spotlight was turned on Lake Michigan for research and education. Here are10 important stories from 2015.
The year started with big research news that southern Lake Michigan has high concentrations of plastic microfibers, which are likely from clothing that sheds in the wash. This news was picked up by media outlets around the world, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Guardian, and the Chicago Tribune.
2015 saw the release of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which laid out a plan to reduce the flow of nutrients down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. This strategy was developed with input from a range of stakeholders, including government agencies and agricultural producers.
Be a Hero is now the primary invasive species awareness campaign in Illinois. Recreational water users have heard this message, but now the campaign provides easy tips to help water gardeners, teachers, and aquarium hobbyists curb the spread of aquatic invaders. Plus, Be a Hero provides guidance to hunters, campers, and hikers to prevent the spread of species that threaten habitat on land.
The Grand Calumet River in Indiana just keeps getting better. Another section of this long polluted waterway has been cleaned up through Great Lakes Legacy Act funding and that of many local and state partners. Remediation of the Kennedy to Cline Avenues section led to the removal of 1.1 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment.
Twice this year, it was Lake Michigan’s turn for ongoing projects that rotate yearly around the Great Lakes. First, the Lake Michigan Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI) brought together agencies and scientists to study the nearshore environment, which ultimately will help inform management decisions. CSMI is part of a larger binational effort to advance Great Lakes monitoring and research.
Second, this was the year for the Shipboard Science Workshop on Lake Michigan, in which 15 teachers spent a week aboard the U.S. EPA R/V Lake Guardian working with researchers and learning about Great Lakes science.
IISG has developed new tools to help scientists enhance their research and help decision makers, and others make informed choices. Great Lakes Monitoring is a web application that provides the means for environmental data from across the Great Lakes region to be just a click away.
For communities looking to set water prices smartly, the Northeast Illinois Water and Wastewater Rates Dashboard allows them to compare rates with communities in the region that have similar characteristics. Setting the right price for water is the first step in managing water supplies sustainably.
In our latest issue of The Helm, we report on a tool under development for critical facilities in Cook County to reduce flooding impacts. Through answering a series of questions, facilities managers can assess how the building might be vulnerable to flood damage, and how this risk can be addressed.
Finally, IISG installed a second buoy in the waters of Lake Michigan. This one is off the shores of Wilmette, Illinois, joining the first one in the Indiana waters near Michigan City. These buoys provide key information to the National Weather Service, researchers, boaters, anglers, and beach goers alike.
As we look forward to 2016, we thank partners, stakeholders, and many others that we worked with and supported to achieve noteworthy goals.
Illinois may be hundreds of miles from the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s a key contributor to the “dead zone,” a section of water the size of Connecticut devoid of oxygen that forms every summer. The culprit is millions of pounds of nutrients from farm fields, city streets and wastewater treatment plants entering the Gulf each year through the Mississippi River system.
The collaborative effort began almost two years ago in response to the federal 2008 Gulf of Mexico Action Plan, which calls for all 12 states in the Mississippi River Basin to develop plans to reduce nutrient losses to the Gulf. The process was spearheaded by the Illinois EPA and the Department of Agriculture and facilitated by Illinois Water Resources Center (IWRC) and Illinoi-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG).
“It’s the most comprehensive and integrated approach to nutrient loss reduction in the state’s history,” says Brian Miller, director of IISG and IWRC. “But what really sets the plan apart is how it was developed. Government agencies, agricultural producers and commodity groups, non-profit organizations, scientists, and wastewater treatment professionals were all at the table working together to create this strategy.”
The approach outlines a set of voluntary and mandatory practices for both urban and agricultural sources for reducing the primary drivers of the algal blooms that lower oxygen levels—phosphorus and nitrogen. By targeting the most critical areas and building on existing state and industry programs, these practices are expected to ultimately reduce the amount of nutrients reaching Illinois waterways by 45 percent.
Led by researchers at the University of Illinois, the study uncovered numerous cost-effective practices for reducing nutrient losses. At the heart of the strategy is a scientific assessment that used state and federal data to calculate Illinois’ current nutrient losses and determine where they’re coming from.
The plan for wastewater treatment plants is relatively straightforward. The state had already begun to cap the amount of phosphorus they are allowed to release, restrictions that will likely be expanded under the new plan. The strategy also calls for sewage plants to investigate new treatment technologies that could lower phosphorus levels enough to prevent algal blooms in nearby waterways.
For farmers and others working in agriculture, the options are a little broader. Most of the recommended practices, such as installing buffer strips along stream banks to filter runoff, planting cover crops to absorb nutrients and adjusting nitrogen-fertilizing practices have been used successfully in Illinois for years.
“There is no silver bullet for reducing nutrients,” said Mark David, a University of Illinois biogeochemist and one of the researchers behind the scientific assessment. “It is going to take at least one new management practice on every acre of agricultural land to meet the state’s reduction goals.”
The Gulf of Mexico dead zone was the topic of discussion by government officials and non-profit organization representatives from across the Mississippi River Basin in Alton, IL last week. Our own Michael Brennan and Lisa Merrifield were among those in the room and wrote in to share their impressions of the meeting.
But first, Michael brings us up to speed on the reason for the meeting and the group behind it all.
“The hypoxic zone is a seasonal phenomenon in the Gulf region, where sudden outbreaks in algal communities spurred on by excess nitrogen and phosphorus lead to depleted oxygen levels in an area the size of New Jersey. Since it is rain events that wash excess nutrients into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf, the size of the hypoxic zone varies year-to-year. However, the average annual size has remained unchanged for decades.
“State and federal agencies have been working towards a solution to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone for decades,” he added. “The Hypoxia Task Force, a group consisting of federal and state representatives, was established in 1997 to oversee a unified regional effort to reduce the size of the dead zone. Last week’s event was the group’s fall meeting.”
The day-long meeting touched on a variety of issues, including updates on ongoing efforts to understand the dynamics of the dead zone and to reduce the amount of nutrients carried from farm fields and city streets in stormwater runoff.
“The task force has been doing a lot of modeling exercises to determine the size and spread of the hypoxic zone,” said Lisa. “They are starting to think beyond the basics about how to more accurately characterize the impact of the zone, from biological to social and economic impacts. Many members expressed interest in engaging social scientists as they think about future strategies.”
“My main purpose for being there was to hear about the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which will be released this fall,” Lisa added. The strategy lays out a suite of best management practices for reducing nutrient losses from both point and non-point sources. It was developed by representatives from government agencies, agriculture, and non-profits as well as scientists and wastewater treatment professionals and represents the most comprehensive and integrated approach to date for tackling nutrients in Illinois. Along with the rest of the staff at the Illinois Water Resources Center, Lisa has spent the last year facilitating the development of the state’s nutrient strategy.
As a water quality specialist focused on nutrients in the Mississippi River, the meeting was particularly interesting for Michael.
“The most encouraging part was a hearing from a new organization that has thrown their hat into the ring: the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative. The group consists of 65 mayors of riverfront communities from Minnesota to New Orleans who came together to preserve the local economies that depend on the Mississippi River and improve the integrity and sustainability of the river. They have already begun implementing practices that protect and restore water quality. The city of Grafton, IL, for example, restored a wetland in their community. Wetlands are natural landscape features that facilitate flood water storage, foster native vegetation, and provide valuable habitat for a wide variety of birds and other wildlife.” To learn more about hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, visit the task force website.