More Work Needed to Meet Nutrient Loss Reduction Goals in Illinois
This week, Illinois released the third update to the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, or NLRS, report to show where progress is being made and where certain challenges persist. In 2015, a policy working group led by the Illinois Water Resource Center-Illinois Indiana Sea Grant, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture developed the Illinois NLRS to do its part in correcting long-term challenges to water quality and soil health in the Mississippi River Basin.
What big news can we take away from this third update? Nutrient loss actually increased over the past two years rather than continue to decrease. Nitrogen-nitrate losses increased about 13%, while phosphorus losses increased about 35% above previously established baselines.
While these overall numbers are hard to digest and speak to the overall challenge we face for protecting soil health and water quality, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. In fact, the report includes two specific examples and places where there has been a lot of progress that we need to continue to build upon. The first example includes new insight into the role that climate change is playing in driving nutrient loss. The second area provides a number of recommendations for stakeholders and decision-makers to follow to ramp up investment to where its needed and correct negative trends before the interim goal of 25% phosphorus reductions and 15% nitrogen reductions by 2025.
Here are some of the top takeaways that you should keep in mind:
A big driver behind the increases in nutrient losses were two exceptionally wet years—increased rainfall and water flow washed additional nutrients out of soils and downstream. This includes the big flood year of 2019, which kept many farmers across the state out of their fields and unable to plant their crops in a timely manner.
In total, water flow increased by about 25% statewide over the reporting period. In some watersheds, that number grew to be higher than 30%. Increased precipitation and more periods of intense rainfall are aspects of climate change that we are already experiencing. Not only does increased water flow complicate nutrient loss reduction work but it also just makes farmers’ jobs harder. As agricultural fields continue to flood, farmers face the challenge of only having a few good days to plant, manage, and harvest their crops. This puts a big stress on individual farmers as well as the agricultural economy overall. Planning for climate changes and investing in solutions that build resilience over time need to be a key parts of nutrient loss work going forward.
Since the adoption of the Illinois NLRS in 2015, dozens of new partnerships, collaborations, and initiatives have come together to support farmers in implementing conservation practices. This has driven new investment and practice adoption in some key watershed areas throughout the state. In the past two years, over 110 partner organizations supported nutrient loss reduction work with almost $27 million of resources on farm fields across the state. This network is well-positioned to continue building upon past work. However, more security for farmers and investment in local conservation capacity, as well as long-term financial assistance, is needed to reach the scale necessary to fully protect clean water and healthy soils.
To show how much the right levels of investment make a difference, the state continues to meet its goals when it comes to reducing nutrient loss from wastewater treatment facilities and other point sources. This is in large part due to the stable and significant funding options that this sector has available to invest in facility upgrades. In just the past two years, funding tripled for investment in water treatment from $65.1 million in 2019 to $185.2 million in 2020. This brought over $200 million to this sector to protect its gains. This demonstrates that progress is possible and sustainable when the resources are available. Decision-makers need to determine similar ways to replicate this success when it comes to expanding conservation practices.
Similarly, progress from wastewater facilities is helped by the plans they have to put in place through the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System and facility-specific Nutrient Assessment Reduction Plans. These provide clear guidance on what wastewater treatment operators need to do and what kind of investment there needs to be for reaching nutrient reduction goals.
It can be much more complicated for farmers to develop conservation programs that work for their operations. Financial and technical assistance comes from a mix of state and federal resources, and paperwork can often be onerous, taking years for contracts to be finalized.
Right now, the Illinois NLRS provides state-level research that is helpful for understanding the big picture but does not always translate to understanding the demands that individual farmers face in balancing food production and conservation goals. Finding ways to streamline planning and support for farmers in accessing resources would go a long way towards making serious progress on reducing nutrient loss from farm fields.
One of the highlights of the report is the scenario models it provides for understanding how many acres under certain conservation practices we would need to meet short-term and long-term nutrient loss reduction goals.
The report’s resources help us understand that while cover crop adoption has expanded over the past decade, we are still well short by about three to twelve million acres of adoption that we need to meet short-term targets. At the same time, they also show that we are not too far off when it comes to other conservation practices, like no-till adoption. Decision-makers can use these scenarios to establish benchmarks and have conversations with farmers to determine what kinds of resources and assistance are necessary to get closer to those goals.
What is next? Progress towards soil health and nutrient loss reduction goals relies on stakeholders to lead project implementation. That means farmers and conservation partners must fill in the gaps and they need the right guidance and resources to do that. To date, very few actions have been taken by the Illinois General Assembly to assist this work, and now is the time to get serious. If there is no action taken, we will blow past our goals in no time and farmers will continue to be strapped by the demands of their operations to protect yields while trying to expand conservation practices.