Nutrient loss is one of the most serious pollution threats faced in the U.S., causing a Rhode Island-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, poisoning local lakes and streams and causing serious health problems for people and domesticated animals.
This year, Illinois lawmakers are considering how to best direct state resources to help reduce nutrient runoff, particularly in the agriculture sector and suburban sewage runoff.
One goal is to incentivize farmers to adopt nutrient runoff reduction strategies through government incentives and other policy changes. It’s an effort to better fulfill a runoff reduction strategy that began in 1995 but hasn’t led to the results lawmakers had hoped for.
Illinois is one of 11 states in the Mississippi River basin that have pledged to develop strategies to reduce the nutrient loads leaving their borders. Illinois aimed to reduce nitrates and nitrogen by 15 percent and phosphorus by 25 percent by 2025, but the latest update showed that nutrient loss increased by 13 percent and phosphorus losses increased by 35 percent, compared with a baseline period from 1980 to 1996, according to the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Implementation Biennial Report.
The state is making headway on its goal to reduce nutrient discharge from wastewater treatment facilities. From 2019 to 2020, funding tripled for investment in water treatment, resulting in more than $200 million in investment for improvements at wastewater plants. Clear guidance was in place to help wastewater operators understand what improvements needed to be made and how to get funding to make them, according to the report.
Agriculture has not seen the same reductions.
Increased and more intense rains fueled by climate change complicated those nutrient loss efforts, experts say. While developing agricultural strategies to address nutrient loss, they are complicated by geography and financial considerations for the 72,000 farmers who farm 27 million acres across the state.
“Farm conservation is, by far, the most effective way to combat nutrient loss, but it can be costly for individual farmers to implement,” said Michael Woods, division manager of the Division of Natural Resources for the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
Some of the key agricultural practices to combat nutrient loss and help reach the goal of a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are conservation tillage, testing the soil before applying phosphorus fertilizer, using the maximum return on nitrogen rate for nitrogen fertilizer, putting grass buffers on waterways, and using cover crops.
A state program offers a $5-per-acre discount on crop insurance, but demand for the program is far outpacing the availability even as its funding was doubled this year.
In 2019, the first year of the “Fall Cover for Spring Savings,” the program covered 50,000 acres. It took 12 days for the applications to be filled. IDOA estimated 70 percent of the applicants were new to planting cover crops. In 2022, the acreage limit was doubled to 100,000 acres. It took less than 12 hours to fill the first-come, first-served program.