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Illinois moved forward with continued work and substantial investments in a statewide strategy to decrease nitrogen and phosphorus moving into rivers, lakes and streams. The third biennial report of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) also attributed challenges for reducing progress on some fronts.
The NLRS offers a menu of voluntary actions to lower nitrogen and phosphorus coming from urban runoff, diffuse nonpoint sources that are predominantly agricultural and specific point sources that are mainly municipal wastewater treatment and industry.
Overall, Illinois seeks to lower all nitrogen and phosphorus moving into water by 45% compared to average 1980-96 levels. Interim goals include a 15% nitrogen reduction and a 25% phosphorus reduction by 2025.
A substantial expansion of cover crop acres, a 135% increase from 2011, illustrated farmers’ adoption of recommended practices, said Illinois Agriculture Director Jerry Costello II. Costello noted the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s (IDOA) cover crop initiative is helping to seed more cover crop acres and raising awareness of practices to reduce nutrient losses.
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) Director John Kim called new efforts by each sector “noteworthy given the increase in precipitation events experienced in Illinois and other states within the Mississippi River basin.”
NLRS long-term group effort through ‘challenging times’
Unprecedented heavy precipitation proved a major challenge for nitrogen and phosphorous reduction efforts from 2019 to 2020. The report’s five-year rolling average showed a 25% increase in precipitation compared to the 1980-96 baseline. Higher nutrient loads are expected to occur in wetter years compared to drier ones. Based on 2015-19 data, the statewide average estimated a 13% increase in nitrogen losses and a 35% increase in phosphorous losses, according to the report.
A range of compiled information is available in the 238-page report with multiple appendices, including a 624-page agriculture appendix, 109-page point source appendix and 53-page stormwater appendix. Additional appendices are an IEPA watershed plan, Natural Resources Conservation Service appendix, Farm Service Agency appendix and Illinois Farm Bureau appendix. To read the report and appendices, visit https://tinyurl.com/4c6fyeyu.
Trevor Sample, IEPA’s NLRS coordinator, attributed some of the phosphorus increase to point sources, while some may be coming from “legacy phosphorus in streambeds that was stirred up” and some may come from streambank erosion.
Even with increased precipitation, “we need to do as much as we can in the future,” Sample continued. “We want farmers to keep nutrients on their fields. They paid good money for that and want to try to keep it.”
The pandemic challenged education efforts by agencies, point sources and partners in agriculture and conservation, but some activities resulted in record turnout albeit virtually. “It showed people were still engaged” despite the situation, Sample noted.
Looking ahead, Michael Woods, manager of IDOA’s natural resources division, said, “Climate is probably one of our biggest issues.”
The state continues to identify best management practices, and recently added saturated buffers and terraces to the NLRS menu. Those practices’ nutrient-reduction contributions will be monitored and accounted for in upcoming reports.
Going forward, agriculture may need to engage landowners, bank farm managers and crop insurance agents among others to increase and expand recommended NLRS practices, according to Woods. He included students from elementary grades through college as agriculture’s future.
The interim’s goal of “2025 is here and 2050 is around the corner. The next generation needs to be engaged,” Woods said.
The next biennial NLRS report will be published in 2023.