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A report on nutrient pollution in Illinois' waterways shows more work is needed

Lieb put in a series of terraces in a hilly soybean field to prevent heavy rainfalls from carrying soil and nutrients away.
Manuel Martinez
Lieb put in a series of terraces in a hilly soybean field to prevent heavy rainfalls from carrying soil and nutrients away.

A new report detailing Illinois' progress in curbing the amount of nutrient pollution heading into the Mississippi River shows the state will fall short of its goals.

The latest report on "Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy" (NLRS) shows the state is poised to miss a 2025 goal to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus heading into its waterways.

"Nutrient levels in Illinois waterways continued to increase in 2021 and 2022 compared to baseline measurements, and the NLRS partnership anticipates the strategy will likely fall short of its 2025 interim goals, particularly for phosphorus," the report notes. "This is despite multi-sector investments in resources and practices that support nutrient loss reduction across the state.

Illinois is one of 12 states on a federal task force focused on reducing the amount of excess nitrogen and phosphorus released into its lakes, rivers and streams.

The goal is not only to make local water sources cleaner, but reduce an annually appearing "dead zone"in the Gulf of Mexico caused by too many nutrient pollutants entering the Gulf from the Mississippi River.

This summer's dead zone spanned 3,058 square miles, which the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science said represents about two million acres of habitat for fish and marine life.

The nutrient pollutants making the area toxic to marine life typically come from sources like runoff from wastewater treatment plants, urban storm-drains and agricultural runoff.

The Illinois NLRS report cites climate change as a major contributing factor to increased streamflow and the overall increased nutrient loads that went into the Mississippi.

According to the 2023 INLRS report:

  • The 2017–21 five-year average nitrate-nitrogen loads increased 4.8% (compared to the 1980–1996 baseline).
  • Total phosphorus loads increased 35% (compared to the 1980–1996 baseline).
  • The five-year averages for nitrate-nitrogen loads, total phosphorus loads, and streamflow all decreased in 2017–21 (compared to the previous 2016-20 averages of 16.2%, 42%, and 30% above baseline).

Environmental advocates who've been following the issue for years say there's been a shift in where the majority of nutrient pollution comes from in Illinois — and that shift determines where potential solutions may be found.

'Agriculture owns the dominant piece of the pie'

Megan Baskerville, the ag program director for The Nature Conservancy, said when the state first set its progress goals in 2015, the nutrient pollution was more evenly split between agricultural sources and "point sources," like wastewater plants.

"Since (2015), though, the point source sector has reduced their load significantly," Baskerville said. "Now agriculture owns the dominant piece of the pie, if you will, for both of the nutrients."

Baskerville points to enhanced regulation of sites like water treatment plants as a reason for that sector's increased progress in reducing nutrient pollution.

"The agency ... resubmitted those permits with more stringent requirements on what they can actually send out of their pipes when it comes to nitrogen and phosphorus," she said. "They live and die by that permit."

The Illinois NLRS report notes, among other progress markers, that as of last year, "38% of major municipal wastewater treatment plants were meeting total phosphorus limits."

Baskerville said that kind of regulation doesn't exist within the agricultural sector.

The programming that does exist to promote voluntary conservation practices could use boosts in funding and promotion, she added.

The 2023 INLRS report acknowledges this, noting since "nutrient loads are increasing" there is "an urgent need to to continue supporting work in nutrient loss research, public education, outreach and technical support, especially within the agriculture sector."

"We need to start getting very innovative on the voluntary side of this," said Illinois Environmental Council state program director Eliot Clay.

"I think that's the easiest thing that we can do in the short term: For everybody to have a kind of kumbaya moment and start thinking about, 'How do we get more state resources to get conservation on the ground?'"

The state's report highlights a heightened interest in the topic, reporting that "940 outreach events related to nutrient loss attracting more than 110,000 participants" were organized by ag groups between 2021-2022.

Illinois Farm Bureau president Brian Duncan said in a statement on the Illinois NLRS report that "each year is a learning experience with more farmers implementing sustainable practices that make sense for their operation. Illinois farmers remain engaged in sustainability goals and will continue steadily working with our partners to protect our land for generations to come."

Still, the report said "the scale and pace of adoption of recommended conservation practices must improve" and added that Illinois faces "a statewide shortage of trained staff across agencies, which is a challenge to meeting the demand for practice implementation."

Added Clay: "What I would very much hope is that the current administration and future administration would see this and realize we have a responsibility, not only within this state, but anybody that is within the Mississippi River watershed to clean up the practices that are happening in the ag sector right now. So, we're going to keep pushing them to get more money for this stuff and get creative with federal money that's out there."

An annual conference on the topic of Illinois' Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy is scheduled for Jan. 24 in Springfield. The conference has an online option to attend and is open to members of the public.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at