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Capitol News Illinois
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.
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.
The funding will rise over the next 10 years from $10 million to more than $25 million in 2027, extending through 2032.
The bill asks for agricultural management on state-owned and leased lands to support nutrient loss reduction efforts. It also directs much of the current allocation to the Illinois EPA toward implementation of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy and infrastructure projects for nutrient capture.
In 1995, the Illinois Legislature passed Conservation 2000, a comprehensive, six-year, $100 million initiative designed to promote ecosystem-based management of privately held land in a public-private partnership and create partnerships between the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Natural Resources. It became Partners for Conservation in 2008, but it was scheduled to expire in 2021 as legislation to extend it failed to pass.
The latest legislative effort will extend that program and provide additional guidance on setting goals and targets to advance conservation efforts, expand the eligible uses of the Partners for Conservation Fund, including funding for the Fall Covers for Spring Savings Program, and enhance reporting to the Legislature on progress through the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.
The bill will not only help align state programs with the NLRS, but it creates a framework that will help agency staff direct state and federal conservation dollars toward nutrient loss programs.
It would also stabilize state funding for the programs allowing for matching federal money, Webster said.
Participation in voluntary incentive programs, like the cover crop program, might not be enough to meet the goals in the NLRS, said Catie Gregg, agricultural program specialist for Prairie Rivers Network.
Conservation tillage, maximum return rate for nitrogen, and testing the soil for phosphorus before applying fertilizer should be part of those strategies, Gregg said.
For Illinois to meet those nutrient loss reduction goals, agriculture programs should be scaled up, Gregg said.. New agriculture programs are at the scale of millions of dollars, whereas wastewater treatment facilities have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in reducing nutrient pollution in their plants, often funded by the state revolving fund.