Nutrient pollution continues to rise in Illinois


CHAMPAIGN - The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency released its third biennial Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) 2021 Biennial Report in September. Despite years of efforts on the part of dozens of state agencies and stakeholders and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the situation is getting worse. Since the 1980-1996 baseline period, nitrate and phosphorus levels in Illinois water have increased by 13 percent and 35 percent respectively.

The NLRS report monitors the state’s progress towards reducing nutrient pollution entering our lakes and streams and reducing the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. Excessive levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus can cause excessive algae growth, low levels of oxygen in water, endanger aquatic life, and contribute to unhealthy drinking water.

While modest increases in conservation activities by the agricultural sector were reported, it is clear that Illinois is struggling to get enough conservation farming practices on the ground to stem the flow of nutrients from the soil. Illinois needs a strategy that shows us how we will get the landscape changes and farming practices we need on the ground, not just the math for how many acres of each practice we need.

The report also emphasized that climate change has increased levels of nitrate and phosphorus entering our water under our current farming systems. Climate scientists predict that this trend of more high intensity storms in the spring and fall will continue. A significant increase in conservation farming practices on the landscape is needed if we are to make any progress towards reaching our NLRS goal reductions.

“Our major wastewater treatment districts have made significant improvements to their facilities to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus leaving them; however, those gains are washed away by misapplied fertilizers and leaving the soil unprotected in agriculture,” said Prairie Rivers Network Agricultural Programs Specialist Catie Gregg. “Without the state setting specific annual or biennial goals and strategies about how they expect to meet them, we will never reduce fertilizer pollution.”