BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Illinois contributes 20 percent of the nitrogen and 11 percent of the phosphorous that reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Representatives from agricultural and urban areas have a plan to keep those nutrients here.

A draft proposal developed by the Nutrient Reduction Strategy Policy Working Group in partnership with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will be available for public comment on the EPA’s website for 30 days beginning in mid-July.

The final Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy will be provided to the U.S. EPA in September.

The goal is to reduce phosphorous by 25 percent and nitrogen loss by 15 percent by 2025. Implementation will continue until the loss for each nutrient is reduced by 45 percent.

Reducing nutrient loss would not only benefit nearby water quality, but also reduce the hypoxic area in the Gulf of Mexico where excessive nutrients lower oxygen levels to the point where the area can no longer support aquatic organisms.

The policy working group comprised of representatives from agriculture, government, environmental groups and wastewater technical assistance providers was formed to formulate the action steps for the strategy documentation, using the science assessment results to craft an action plan that is effective and implementable.

For science-based decision-making, the University of Illinois conducted a statewide assessment of the current conditions and practices affecting nutrient losses in Illinois water to identify baseline nutrient loading conditions, current practices, critical watersheds, potential nutrient reductions under various scenarios and cost estimates for implementation.

Ag Big Contributor

The study found that 82 percent of all nutrients entering waterways are from agricultural sources, 16 percent from wastewater treatment plants and other urban point sources and 2 percent from urban runoff.

For nitrates, 80 percent is from ag sources, 18 percent from point sources and 2 percent from urban runoff. Phosphorous sources are split nearly 50-50 between agriculture and non-point sources.

“The researchers also determined where the agriculture and non-point sources are located in the watersheds. This helps us understand where we start focusing our attention and focusing our practices,” Marcia Willhite, Illinois EPA’s Bureau of Water chief, told farm leaders at Illinois Farm Bureau’s legislative roundtable.

“The U.S. EPA is interested in seeing the strategy documents from the states in the Mississippi River Basin. They are concerned about the issue of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxia. That is one of their high-profile issues.”

Programs In Place

Lauren Lurkins, Illinois Farm Bureau director of natural and environmental resources, said the strategies, including building on existing programs already used by farmers, and the initiative will reinvigorate land conservation practices and reinvigorate education on nutrient management practices.

Lurkins noted the various state and federal programs already available through the state agriculture department, EPA and NRCS that promote nutrient management, as well as the efforts by the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices, Keep It for the Crop by 2025 and Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council.

“It’s our opportunity to demonstrate that voluntary conservation does work,” Lurkins said.

“The progress will be reviewed every two years. The strategy is a living document. The research that NREC does and the new programs will all have to be updated on a pretty regular basis. It sounds like the stakeholder group will reconvene every five years for a report on progress and keep everybody in the loop.”