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Federal district and appellate courts have now upheld the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on the amount of nutrients leaving farm fields and entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a move that the EPA says could take 600,000 acres of farmland out of production. 

Fearing that a similar fate could await Illinois farmers because of nitrogen and phosphorus content flowing down the Mississippi River, a wide-ranging 33-member group on Tuesday introduced a nutrient reduction strategy for Illinois.

The strategy not only impacts nearly every farmer in the state, but also runoff from urban pavements, and single sources of river-borne nutrients, such as the Decatur Sanitary District. It could be a considered a last-ditch effort before the U.S. EPA imposes mandates similar to the strategy, but follows those with hefty fines.

The effort to create a Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy for Illinois began in 2011 by the state departments of agriculture and environmental protection. Beginning in March 2013, input from governmental agencies, environmental groups, farm organizations and university researchers was solicited, culminating with an opportunity for farmers to weigh in on the concepts earlier this year. 

Many farmers are well aware they have long been blamed for fertilizer compounds finding their way out of field tiles and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. While the Mississippi watershed covers over half of the states in the nation, Illinois farmers have been targeted because of the intensity of row crop production and volume of acreage that is drained with field tile. 

Twelve states in the Mississippi basin have been directed by the EPA to develop plans for eliminating the hypoxia zone in the Gulf, where insufficient oxygen is available to support sea life.

Included in the process to develop the strategy was the idea to divide the state into multiple regions, determine the amount and type of farm and urban runoff and identify its sources. Single points of origin, such as a sanitary district, will be provided with strong suggestions for reducing the composition of their outflow.  However, agriculture is a different issue, and provides more challenges in solving.

Farm owners and operators readily apply commercial fertilizers to boost crop yields as a means of covering production expenses.  In some years such as 2012, when drought impacted field crops, those nutrients were locked in the soil.  But in a year such as 2015, when incessant rains have washed nitrogen, phosphorus and potash compounds out of the field, either through tiles or across ditches and roadways, controlling that loss isn't easy.

Regardless of the climatic conditions, the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy calls for a 15 percent reduction in nitrates and a 25 percent cut in phosphates leaving Illinois by 2025 with an eventual goal of a 45 percent reduction. While 82 percent of nitrates originate in agriculture, 48 percent of phosphates come from point sources, such as a sanitary district or urban facility.

But how are farmers going to comply, in the face of compliance lawsuits by environmental groups and under threat of heavy fines by the EPA?  Major efforts are already under way and the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices has taken a road show around the state recently to educate farmers about changes in agronomic practices to reduce nutrient loss. Other efforts by the Nutrient Research and Education Council employs university researchers to find new methods and to develop educational efforts that can be conveyed to farmers. 

In coming months, much will be said about the state strategy, which not only has a goal of producing food with minimal nutrient loss, but also improving water quality for everyone in Illinois. Farmers have been trying to do both of those for a long time, but now they want to ensure they avoid the path of their colleagues in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

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Stu Ellis is an observer of the Central Illinois agriculture scene.

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Deputy Night Editor

Deputy night editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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