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River activists demand faster water quality results

Mississippi River Collaborative's report claims little progress in nutrient loss reduction among states bordering Mississippi and asks for EPA action. Ag industry leaders say action is taking place, but progress takes time.

Jill Loehr, Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer

November 18, 2016

4 Min Read

In a new report this week, the Mississippi River Collaborative says state nutrient loss reduction strategies aren’t enough and calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take more specific actions, including further regulation, oversight and funding procurement.

The MRC wants EPA to set numeric limits of allowable nitrogen and phosphorus in state waters, assess more waterways to determine the full extent and impact of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and make sure states develop rigorous plans for reducing pollution and help obtain the funding needed to address loss reduction goals. 


The report released by MRC, along with a partnership of 13 environmental and legal groups, assessed state progress in reducing pollution that impacts drinking water supplies and causes the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.  

In its report, Decades of Delay, MRC says nitrogen and phosphorus continue to pose serious threats to Illinois waters.

Volunteer efforts questioned
“EPA’s hands-off approach is simply not working in Illinois. Every summer our lakes and beaches are fouled by noxious, smelly and sometimes toxic algal blooms,” says Kim Knowles, staff attorney at Prairie Rivers Network. “The state lacks a rigorous program for addressing this scourge.” 

But are volunteer efforts toward nutrient loss reduction really not working?

According to Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, the wheels are in motion for change, but this level of transformation takes time. She points to the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS), which was launched a year ago.

"It always takes time in crop production to make changes,” she says. “Farmers only get 40 chances to plant a crop in their careers, so changes happen gradually as the farmers need to prove to themselves that these changes also improve their farming operation. It's important to note that this is already occurring. An excellent example is the adoption of split nitrogen application; this has grown substantially over the past several years and is a way to reduce nutrient losses."  

As for setting numeric limits and assessing more waterways for quality assurance, Payne says that at face value, MRC’s report is correct: Illinois does not have nitrogen or phosphorus numeric limits, and there are only a small percentage of rivers, streams and lakes that are monitored for pollutants.

But those factors aren’t necessarily being ignored.

Lauren Lurkins, director of natural and environmental resources with Illinois Farm Bureau, says there is a phosphorus water quality standard of 0.05 mg per liter in lakes 20 acres or more and in the streams that feed into that body of water.

“Not every single waterway is monitored for phosphorus,” she says. “However, in many cases, pollutants are monitored.”

Today in Illinois, issues such as nutrient levels are covered under the “offensive conditions” section of the Clean Water Act.

Quantifying nutrient load
Part of the challenge, Lurkins says, is that research hasn’t been able to quantify the nutrient load that impacts aquatic life. The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy calls for an attempt to nail down the numeric criteria for both nitrates and phosphorus in a variety of water ways.

According to Payne, NLRS has a science committee reviewing “the effect of various nitrogen and phosphorus levels on aquatic life.”

The science committee may be able to define a numeric standard for phosphorus, Lurkins says, but nitrates may be too difficult to quantify. The committee will also determine if the numeric standard is statewide, or if different numeric standards are necessary based on place, size or type of water.

“This is an extremely arduous task," Payne adds. 

To MRC’s concern about monitoring waterways, Lurkins says eight continuous river monitors were placed near Illinois’ borders in 2015, tracking water entering and leaving the state. Payne says the U.S. Geological Society and the Illinois EPA will add more monitoring stations over the next five to 10 years.

In addition, the Illinois EPA conducts a surface and ground water “check” every two years. Moving forward, Lurkins says the report will start tracking nutrients.

The other factor Payne says to keep in mind is the Illinois NLRS will progress as we learn the impact of new practices, such as cover crops and nitrogen management. “Our state strategy will evolve, and there will be metrics and measures beginning in the next two years,” she says. “The ILNLRS working groups continue to meet and frame how the metrics will be reported and who will be responsible for reporting.”

Last, Payne says voluntary nutrient loss reduction efforts, so far, are paying off: Nitrate levels in Illinois rivers have come down, according to reports from the University of Illinois.

“There has to be a reasonable balance between food production and environmental protection. We need to seek that balance that benefits both,” Payne says. “And it can be done if people open their minds and work together.” 

About the Author(s)

Jill Loehr

Associate Editor, Prairie Farmer, Loehr

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