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Illinois' New Plan to Reduce Farm Runoff

Abby Wendle
Illinois, one of dozens of states in the Mississippi River watershed, contributes one-fifth of the nitrates that flow through the river into the Gulf of Mexico - hurting the Gulf's wildlife population and seafood industry.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) released the state's first ever Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.  The document is the state's plan to decrease pollution of local waterways, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico -- pollution caused in large part by fertilizer runoff from farmland.

Despite being only one of dozens of states in the expansive Mississippi River watershed, Illinois contributes one-fifth of the nitrates that end up in the Gulf of Mexico, creating an uninhabitable environment for fish and other wildlife -- the so-called “dead zone” - and taking a significant economic toll on the Gulf’s seafood industry.


Scientists from the University of Illinois report in the state’s strategy that the majority of the chemicals from Illinois that are ending up in the Mississippi River, approximately 80% of the nitrogen and 50% of the phosphorus, are leaching off of the state’s farm fields.

“That’s a fairly significant contribution,” said Marcia Willhite, Chief of the IEPA’s Bureau of Water. “But when you look at how much agriculture there is in our state, it’s not surprising that there would be losses from agricultural watersheds at the rate that we’re seeing.”


Illinois’ plan, following in the footsteps of other Mississippi River basin states, doesn’t create legislation requiring farmers to stop polluting or reduce their amount of pollution, but instead outlines a variety of voluntary actions producers can take to limit their chemical footprint.


The suggestions include growing cover crops to hold down chemicals in the wintertime when fields would otherwise be bare, applying the correct amount of nitrogen to the soil so there’s no excess runoff, and planting grass “filter strips” between farm fields and creeks.


Willhite said some of these voluntary measures, such as cover crops, are likely to be popular with farmers because in addition to being good for the environment, there’s evidence suggesting they’re also good for a farm operation's bottom line.


But some of the recommendations -- for instance, taking farmland out of operation to create wetlands that allow chemicals to settle out of the water before continuing downstream -- are likely to be less popular because they cost money and offer no economic benefit in return.


“It’s a challenge to expect people to do these things,” Willhite said. “Now, if we don’t get the implementation levels that are expected, then I think people will have to come back together and decide, so, what do we do about that? Are there other approaches Illinois should consider?”


Parts of the country are already considering other approaches. On the east coast, the federal EPA partnered with several states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to limit pollution from farms. Willhite said they were able to take that approach because some of the states in the bay’s watershed are farther along in collecting the information necessary to track how much pollution is coming from a particular farm. President Obama also issued an executive order for some of the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to limit their runoff.


“That’s probably what would need to happen in the Mississippi River basin before we’d be looking at a regulatory approach,” Willhite said. “I guess it’s possible, but it doesn’t feel like it’s pending at this particular moment.”


Researchers expect the dead zone in the Gulf to be the size of Connecticut this year, consistent with the historical average. Some researchers suggest that means voluntary strategies, like the one Illinois is adopting, aren’t working.


Willhite disagreed. She said it’s too early to tell because even though many states have adopted nutrient loss reduction strategies, they’re still in the first few years of working with farmers to adopt water conservation practices.

“I think the key is, not that we’ve got our strategy documents completed,” she said. “But that there is implementation of those strategic actions going on, on a very large scale, because that’s what it’s going to take.”