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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

Growing Clean Water

Water is important to us all, plays a major role in all of our lives, and is a fundamental human need. Access to clean water is one of the top priorities to many people. A lack of clean water restricts recreation, as well as having an economic impact on the communities. One threat to clean water is excess nutrients in the waterways. There are three major nutrients that are of concern - Total Nitrogen, Nitrate-Nitrogen, and Total Phosphorus. There are three major sources for excess nutrients in the waters in Illinois. Urban runoff accounts for the smallest portion of all nutrients, point sources are the second leading source, and agricultural sources are the leading source of all excess nutrients.

There is not a silver bullet to eliminate excess nutrients in our waterways, but there are a number of different ways to go about reducing the amount of nutrients that are making their way into both the surface water and the ground water. Agriculture is the leading source for all of the nutrients that are of a concern; however, farmers have made huge steps forward in reducing the amount of nutrients that are coming out of their fields. In addition to the nutrients that are making an appearance in our water, soil loss is also of concern. Many of the strategies that can be implemented not only reduce the nutrients that are in the soil, but also reduce the loss of soils from farm fields. The use of Best Management Practices by farmers will help greatly in reducing both nutrients and soils from making their way into our water sources

Here are a few of the choices that farmers have to reduce the amount of nutrients and soil that is being lost:

  1. Consider an edge of field strategy. This would include installing an end of tile wetland or bioreactor, both of which are highly effective ways of reducing the amount of nutrients that are moved quickly through the tile systems in fields. These systems are highly effective, but do have installation and maintenance costs. Buffer strips will reduce soil loss in addition to providing some nutrient utilization by the roots of the plants in the buffer strips. Buffer strips do not affect water that moves through the tile systems. Buffer strips also provide beneficial habitat for wildlife and pollinators, and some research has shown that buffer strips can have a positive effect on a field's production. (
  2. Minor changes in fertilizer application can have a big effect on the nutrients that are being transported into the waterways, and can be a much more cost effective way of applying fertilizers to fields. Many farmers understand this and have changed the timing of their fertilizer applications as this translates into less cost to produce high yields. Shifting from a fall application to a spring application of nitrogen products or using a nitrification inhibitor can have a significant effect on the amount of fertilizer that is needed in each field. Splitting applications of fertilizers to when the plants need them most can further reduce the amount of nutrients that are not used by the intended plants. (
  3. The use of cover crops has been shown to greatly reduce the amount of soil that is lost from a field, and also reduced the amount of nitrate-nitrogen and phosphorus that is lost from a field. Cover crops can be harvested or tilled under to provide a slow release of nutrients to the crops in the field the next year. Cover crops could also provide winter forage for livestock. (,

There are many other suggestions and more strategies can be found in the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy ( If you have any questions or comments, please contact Jason Haupt (

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