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Angie Peltier

Angie Peltier
Former Extension Educator, Commercial Agriculture

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Hill and Furrow

Current topics about crop production in Western Illinois, including field crops research at the NWIARDC in Monmouth.
Figure. The area of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico varies each year, but has been larger than the ecological limit of 1,991 square miles set by an agreement between representatives from the federal government and 12 states that border the Mississippi River in 27 of the past 30 years. Data source: Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy – Draft Available for Public Comment

Public comment period: open until January 24, 2015. On November 25, 2014 the Illinois's Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and Department of Agriculture (IDOA) jointly released a draft Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (INLRS) for public comment. All comments must be either emailed to or mailed and postmarked by January 24, 2015 to: NLRS Comments, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Water, 1021 North Grand Ave. East, P.O. Box 19276, Springfield, IL 62794-9276.

The goals of the INLRS are to both improve water quality for residents of Illinois as well as reduce the amount of nutrient pollution leaving the state. The foundation of the plan is a science assessment prepared by University of Illinois researchers. This assessment summarizes the results of the best available science estimating current nutrient loss from point and non-point sources in Illinois and the current and proposed conservation strategies to reach the goal of reducing both nitrate-nitrogen (N) and total phosphorus (P) losses by 45 percent. Specific strategies for nutrient loss reduction are detailed for point sources, non-point agricultural sources and non-point urban sources of nutrient loss.

Crop and livestock producers may be especially interested in reading or commenting on Section 6: Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies for Agricultural Non-Point Sources. This section details the current state, federal, industry-related, and non-profit programs and projects that support the goal of nutrient reduction. This section also establishes a series of best management practices (BMPs) to reduce N and P losses from land areas devoted to row crop production under the larger topics of fertilizer application, cover crops, edge-of-field practices, and/or tillage. Additional BMPs are established for land areas devoted to livestock production under the topics of manure application, stormwater runoff and pastures and grazing. While many of the more common BMPs are either already widely adopted through current law or financial incentive programs, others are to be adopted by crop and livestock producers in the state on a voluntary basis. Dr. Mark David, member of the INLRS Policy Working Group and Professor in the University of Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences stresses that in order to achieve the necessary nutrient loss reductions "one practice will not work for every acre, but every acre needs at least one practice".

The issues defined. Nutrient pollution. Nutrients from point sources such as wastewater treatment plants and non-point sources such as runoff from urban or agricultural land make their way into ground or surface water. In Illinois, tile-drained agricultural fields are the source of much of the nitrate measured in rivers. Excess N and P in our waterways can affect Illinois's resources and residents in multiple direct and indirect ways: by impairing the quality of our drinking water, by harming aquatic life, and by providing the nutrients that fertilize harmful algal blooms which can limit recreational opportunities.

Further from home, nutrients lost from Illinois travel from small creeks and streams to larger rivers, eventually emptying into the Mississippi River and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. Illinois is not alone: approximately 41 percent of the contiguous United States ultimately drains into the Gulf of Mexico. However, Illinois is one of the main contributors of nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico, with an estimated 20 percent of the nitrate and 11 percent of the total P from the state. In Illinois, research has shown that point sources contribute an estimated 48 percent of the P and 18 percent of the N while non-point agricultural sources contribute an estimated 48 percent of the P and 80 percent of the N lost to the Mississippi River.

Excessive nutrients in water can cause algae to proliferate. Water dissolved oxygen content is depleted when these algae die, sink to the bottom of the water, and decompose: a condition known as hypoxia. Each summer, nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico leads to the formation of a large hypoxic zone as water of different temperatures and salinities form layers and do not mix. Hypoxic water is not favorable for marine life and causes a dramatic decrease in the quantity and diversity of aquatic life as more mobile aquatic life such as adult fish move away and less mobile animals (younger fish and shellfish) may be unable to find enough oxygen or food to complete their life cycles.

Scientists have measured the size of the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico in July of each of the last 30 years beginning in 1985 (Figure). The size of the zone has ranged from an estimated 15 square miles during the historic 1988 drought year to more than 8,490 square miles in 2002. In 2014, the Gulf hypoxia zone was 5,052 square miles.

Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. To address Gulf hypoxia, and in response to an act of Congress (Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research Control Act of 1998), a taskforce made up of federal agencies and representatives from each of the 12 states along the mainstem of the Mississippi River developed the Gulf Hypoxia Action Plan. The Action Plan set a goal to reduce the size of the Gulf hypoxia zone to an ecologically acceptable average of 1,991 square miles.

As the geography, land-uses and industry of each state differs, the Action Plan gave each state the freedom to develop a state-specific Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy tailored to the unique issues in each state. Using a framework developed by the US EPA, and in consultation with a working group comprised of representatives from state and federal agencies, industry, universities, agriculture, wastewater treatment agencies and non-governmental organizations, the IEPA and IDOA worked for over a year to develop the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. Specific strategies for reducing and monitoring nutrient losses from point and non-point sources are detailed in this strategy.

The INLRS also estimated the cost of employing individual and combined practices across all of the corn and soybean acres in Illinois. Some individual practices moderately reduce nutrient losses and actually save money for each pound of nutrient removed. Examples include reducing N rates to University of Illinois maximum return to nitrogen (MRTN) recommendations on 10 percent of acres (an estimated 2,300,000 lb N loss reduction and -$4.25/lb N removed) and reducing the P rate on fields with soil test levels above maintenance levels (an estimated 1.9 million lb P and -$48.75/lb P removed). Other individual practices can provide substantial reductions in nutrient losses, but are estimated to have a larger cost associated with each pound of nutrient removed. For example planting a cover crop on all tile drained corn and soybean acres in the state is estimated to reduce losses of 4.8 million lb of P ($130.4/lb P removed) and 84 million lb of N ($3.21/lb N removed). In practice however, rather than a particular practice being adopted uniformly across the state, it is more likely that different growing regions and operations employ several individual loss reduction strategies.

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