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Nutrient loss reduction efforts include outreach, watershed planning


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There’s plenty of nutrient loss management research data available, but it doesn’t do much good if it isn’t disseminated to farmers to show there’s proof in the pudding.

Jennifer Woodyard, University of Illinois Extension watershed outreach associate, said that’s where Extension and other partner organizations come in.

Woodyard spoke of her outreach work for a pair of phosphorous priority watersheds, the Embarras River and Little Wabash River, in east-central and southeastern Illinois, as well as the work of her counterpart, Haley Harverbeck-Gruber, in northwest Illinois.

Harverbeck-Gruber does outreach for the Mississippi Central/Henderson Creek Watershed and Lower Rock River Watershed that are nitrogen priorities.

Efforts to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous movement into waterways were jump-started when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the 12 states in the Mississippi River Basin to create plans addressing nutrients loads from point sources, urban storm water and agriculture non-point sources.

The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy was released in 2015 with an interim goal to reduce nitrogen loss by 15% and total phosphorous loss by 25% by 2025 with an ultimate goal of reducing both losses by 45%.

“It was written to address the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone, but also the local issues that we see in our own state. We can still have algae blooms and fish kills that can occur in our own area, so we need to address those, as well,” Woodyard said at the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council’s Investment Insight Live event.

The 2019 hypoxic zone in the Gulf was the eighth largest mapped since 1985 at 6,952 square miles.

“Illinois contributes to this obviously, and that’s why we’re talking about this today,” Woodyard said.

“In a 2008 modeling study Illinois was the No. 1 contributor of both nitrogen and phosphorous to this problem in the Gulf of Mexico. Illinois, Iowa and Indiana were the top three for nitrogen which makes sense, we grow a lot of corn, we use a lot of fertilizer, and for total phosphorous Illinois, Missouri and Iowa are the top three.”

Priority Watersheds

The Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy created maps of the major watersheds throughout Illinois and established priority watersheds for both phosphorous and nitrogen.

“We’re working with farmers to help them implement best management practices, conservation on the ground to help reduce nutrient losses in their respective watersheds. We directly work with farmers the most and we work with other stakeholders as well,” Woodyard said.

Best management practices that help control soil erosion and nutrient loss that are being promoted to growers include conservation tillage, cover and green manure crop, critical area planting, filter strip, forest land erosion control system, grass-line channels, grassed waterways, planned grazing systems, permanent vegetative cover, saturated buffer, terrace, water and sediment control basin, wetland restoration, woodchip bioreactor, woodland direct seeding and woodland improvement.

Slow Progress

A biennial report on the progress of the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy was released Nov. 19.

“Things aren’t as great as we’d hoped they would be by now,” Woodyard noted.

Data from 1980-1996 was used as the baseline for comparisons with data collected from 2013-2017.

From the 1980-1996 to 2013-2017, there was a 13% increase in the amount of water flowing through our rivers in the state, a 7% increase in nitrate-N losses and a 26% increase in total phosphorous losses.

“Remember, we wanted to decrease nitrogen by 15% and total phosphorous by 25% by 2025, so we are going in the opposite direction,” Woodyard said.

“One thing big to note though is the point sources have reduced their phosphorous losses by 24% from 2011 to 2018. So, the point sources, things like water treatment plants have really seen a reduction in phosphorous loss. Point source nitrogen loss was reduced by 10%.

“We want to keep conservation practices voluntarily adopted. We don’t want to have farmers forced to do anything and that’s the way we want to keep it, but now we’re starting to see a shift where the point sources are phosphorous loss, now we need to do more throughout the rest of the state, as well.”

In the Embarras, nitrate loads increased by 28% from 1980-1996 to 2013-2017. It was reduced by 13% in the Kaskaskia River and 2% lower in the Illinois River. The Rock River saw the largest increase — 104% — compared to the baseline years.

The total phosphorous load in the Embarras has gone up 3%, there was a 68% increase in the Kaskaskia River, 51% increase in the Little Wabash River, 25% increase in the Illinois River, 8% increase in the Rock River, and 36% decrease in the Green River.

“It’s important to note that water flow has increase, too, and that helps explain some of the increase that we’re seeing in nutrient loss. It doesn’t explain it all, but when you have more water flowing you’re going to have a higher load flowing down the river, too, so that’s part of the problem,” Woodyard said.

Community Outreach

As part of their efforts to deliver information to farmers in their respective watersheds, Woodyard and Harverbeck-Gruber organize field days, workshops and public meetings to educate students, farmers and the general public on nutrient loss reduction practices. In addition, 23 episodes of nutrient loss reduction podcasts can be accessed at will.illinois.edu website, covering a myriad of topics.

“At our field days and educational programs, we demonstrate soil health properties, how to build healthy soil and why it’s important. We go out into the field with farmers and help them figure out how to manage things like cover crops or other conservation practices,” Woodyard said.

“Another big thing that Haley and I do is watershed-based planning. Watershed planning basically helps address water quality problems in a holistic manner by fully assessing the potential contributing causes and sources of pollution, then prioritizing restoration and protection strategies to address these problems.

“It’s a really collaborative effort and Haley and I get facilitate those conversations in our watershed and help develop those plans with local stakeholders.”

The Embarras River Watershed currently has a plan in place that was last updated in 2011, and stakeholders are working toward updating the plan.

Several stakeholders teamed up to raise match support to apply for an IEPA Section 319 Grant to update the watershed plan that would cover 60% of the cost.

“We were able to fund-raise for the 40% match, raising early $76,000 throughout the watershed. Illinois Farm Bureau was a huge contributor, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts in each county contributed as did different organizations, private landowners and cooperatives all came together. They saw the importance of writing and updating a watershed plan,” Woodyard said.

The Coles County SWCD submitted the grant request in July 2019 and should hear in the late spring of 2020 if funds will be awarded.

Extension hosted nine meetings throughout the watershed in January through the Illinois Farm Bureau Nutrient Stewardship Grant.

“We met with farmers and talked about their resource concerns and what tools they would like to see available to them to help them improve water quality within the watershed. We received a lot of good feedback. The Embarras is a long watershed that starts in Champaign County and ends in Lawrence County, so the variance in opinions in the watershed was very interesting,” Woodyard said.


Takeaways consistent from the Embarras watershed farmer meetings include:

• The desire to implement conservation is there, and some will do with without cost-share, but most want and need assistance.

• Some are successfully using cover crops, but many have experiences challenges or not tried them. Cost-share dollars to support implementation would increase adoption.

• They desire more education farmer-to-farmer, but also for their landowners, another consistent theme especially for absentee landowners and just landowners in general. They really want education that’s targeted toward them to help them understand why these things are important and needed on the landscape so that the landowners could potentially help the farmer implement some of these practices with some money assistance.

• There was a desire for local research. At several of the counties meetings it was mentioned they want plots in their own county to know what is happening on the soil types and the climate that they work with everyday and they want to hear what their neighbors are doing and if it’s been successful.

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