DECATUR, IL–As part of the state’s on-going commitment to reduce nutrient losses, the directors of the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today the release of the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Biennial Report. This document, unveiled at the 2017 Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Illinois, 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.
“Illinois agriculture has a positive story to tell,” said IDOA Director Raymond Poe. “We have seen a significant increase in the adoption of various best management practices. Our partners and stakeholders have done a tremendous job getting the word out about what we are doing in Illinois with the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. Farmers understand the consequences of nutrient loss, and they support our quest to minimize losses.”
“In just two years, we are already seeing the impacts of Illinois’ strategy on water quality,” said Illinois EPA Director Alec Messina. “The collaborative efforts of our stakeholders are resulting in real improvements in Illinois’ waters and we look forward to future improvements that will be gained as additional practices are implemented.”
The biennial report contains an update to the original science assessment including nutrient load data from 2011–2015 for both point and non-point sources as well as sector-by-sector reports on activities conducted during the last two years targeted at nutrient loss reduction.
The report also contains information from a recent survey conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service as well as data from other existing sources to serve as metrics to measure progress towards overall water quality improvements now and in the future.
The Agriculture Water Quality Partnership Forum (AWQPF) reports that the agricultural sector invested more than $54 million in nutrient loss reduction for research, outreach, implementation and monitoring. These contributions have come from AWQPF members and other organizations that are working towards reaching the goals set forth in Illinois NLRS. Because of the proactive measures of various agriculture groups, Illinois farmers have become broadly aware of a variety of strategies that mitigate nutrient loss through the adoption of best management practices. Highlights include a move toward split spring and fall nitrogen applications and an increase in the number of acres dedicated to conservation practices such as a use of cover crops.
Since the release of the strategy two years ago, significant strides have also been made in limiting the amount of phosphorus discharge from wastewater treatment plants in Illinois. In the last year, point source sector members targeted key decision makers and practitioners to spread the message of nutrient loss reduction through regulatory updates as part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. As of 2016, nearly 80 percent of all effluent from wastewater treatment plants in Illinois is regulated under a NPDES permit that includes a total phosphorus limit. This number will continue to grow as existing permits expire or come up for renewal. To demonstrate the commitment toward nutrient removal, wastewater treatment facilities report spending $144.96 million to fund feasibility studies, optimization studies and capital investment.
Illinois EPA, through its State Revolving Fund program, provides low interest rate loans to point-source projects addressing water quality issues, including nutrient pollution. Last year, Illinois EPA provided or granted $640,599,148 dollars to these projects. Illinois EPA also provides funding for nonpoint source projects designed to achieve nutrients reduction. Annually this program provides $3.5 million to nonpoint source projects.
“What’s made NLRS remarkable is that we had a broad suite of stakeholders that came together to work on the strategy, and they brought not only their ideas, but the support of their organizations. They all got behind it,” said Brian Miller, Illinois Water Resources Center (IWRC) and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) director. “It started with a science assessment from the university that identified problems and potential solutions. Working together we’re already starting to see some successes.”
This report, which was facilitated by IWRC and IISG, will be updated again in 2019. The science, monitoring and activity from each sector will be updated to demonstrate Illinois’ continued commitment to nutrient loss reduction.
“There is a lot more work that needs to be done,” said Warren Goetsch, IDOA deputy director. “However, in releasing this report at the Farm Progress Show, we are introducing these successes to farmers who may be somewhat apprehensive about trying new management practices. Increasing the exposure of our message will keep this effort in front of producers so we can continue to make progress in the years to come.”
This article is based on a press release from IDOA and Illinois EPA. Contacts are Rebecca Clark (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.
David Kovacic from the Illinois Natural History Survey says constructed wetlands are “more fail safe” than some of the other nitrogen loss reduction practices highlighted in the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. Through droughts and floods, heat waves and early frosts, these shallow depressions placed at the edge of farm fields remove an annual average of 25-60 percent of the nitrogen in water carried through tile lines.
Those reductions are key for water quality in Illinois and downstream. By most estimates, the Prairie State is the largest contributor of nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. More than 400 million pounds of nitrate-nitrogen leave the state through the Mississippi River system each year. And according to the science assessment at the root of the state’s strategy, the bulk of that comes from the tile-drained region of central and northern Illinois.
The Illinois Water Resources Center (IWRC) and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) are pleased to be among the group of researchers and outreach professional to receive the 2016 Team Award for Excellence from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Science. The award recognizes the team’s ongoing collaboration on the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.
“We are proud to have facilitated the development of the most comprehensive and collaborative approach to nutrient loss reduction in the state’s history,” said Brian Miller, IWRC and IISG director and one of six staff members named in the award. “We look forward to working with the University of Illinois team, state agencies and other stakeholders to ensure strategy goals are met in the coming years.
Award winners also include University of Illinois Extension Director George Czapar as well as researchers from the departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and Agricultural and Consumer Economics who led a scientific assessment of current nutrient loads and cost-effective reduction strategies.
Released in 2015, Illinois’ strategy is a blueprint for improving water quality at home and in the Gulf of Mexico by reducing nitrogen and phosphorus losses from farm fields, city streets, and wastewater treatment plants. It’s suite of voluntary and mandatory practices are expected to ultimately cut nutrient loading to rivers and streams by 45 percent.