Illinois is one of the top national producers of corn, soybeans, and swine, with approximately 75% of the state’s land area dedicated to agriculture. The economic and nutritional benefits afforded by agriculture are undeniably important. However, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency found that pollution from crop production impairs approximately 20% of the state’s streams. Such impairment denies Illinois citizens and wildlife the right to clean, safe water. The most common pollutants from agriculture are sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus.
Illinois farmland is among the best in the world because it used to be nutrient-rich, wetland prairie habitat. However, unlike prairie, agricultural fields typically contain a protective cover of plants for only about half of the year, and the rest of the time bare soil is exposed to the elements and erodes into rivers and lakes during rainfalls and snowmelt, taking with it remaining fertilizer nutrients. Even during the growing season, soil loss is greater from agricultural fields than natural land cover. This erosion of land into water results in the sedimentation of our waterways, which means that fish have fewer places to spawn and rivers have less capacity to store water.
The Problem: Nutrient Pollution Runoff
Fertilizers applied to agricultural fields contain the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. Nutrients are great for crop growth, but a large percent of what is applied eventually winds up in nearby waterways and becomes pollution. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in water can result in excessive algal growth, which is often aesthetically unpleasing and causes the loss of dissolved oxygen with subsequent stress on aquatic species. Phosphorus gets into our waterways with eroded soil during heavy rains and snowmelt, whereas nitrogen typically enters via the thousands of miles of underground pipes (i.e., tile drains and drainage outlets) that drain Illinois’ agricultural fields.
The Solution: Conservation Practices and Advanced Technologies
Important strides have been made in the last 25 years to reduce the amount of agricultural runoff polluting Illinois’ waterways. These reductions have been achieved with a variety of conservation practices and advanced technologies. For example, soil testing and GPS technology allow farmers to precisely apply fertilizer to the areas where it is needed. Conservation practices that effectively keep soil and nutrients on the land include drainage water management, wetlands, riparian buffer strips, and spring fertilizer application. Easement programs retire sensitive lands from agricultural production and restore wildlife habitat. Fortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture and Illinois Department of Natural Resources offer a number of cost-share programs that help landowners install these practices and technologies.
Prairie Rivers Network has joined with other conservation groups, agriculture industry groups, government agencies and researchers to develop Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. This strategy identifies targeted reductions in nitrogen and Phosphorus in Illinois 8 major rivers. Each state along the Mississippi River is striving to reduce the flow of nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico in order to reduce the size of the nutrient fueled dead zone. To protect Illinois’ waterways from polluted agricultural runoff, Prairie Rivers Network is working to accelerate the implementation by farmers of agricultural best management practices to reduce