BIG NUTRIENT STREAM This graphic shows the full extent of the Mississippi River Basin in the United States, as well as land use within the basin. Modeling produced in 2014 shows cropland is the likely source of most nutrients entering the gulf.
Illustration by NOAA

Less Tillage Could Save Illinois Farmers $9 Million, Reduce Nutrient Loss

The research comes as the state reports an increase in 2019-20 Mississippi River nutrient loads.

Planting will soon be underway for most Illinois farmers, and while brain bandwidth might be in scarce supply, it’s worth casting a thought down river.

In this case, the river is the Big Muddy, and the thought is of hypoxia. Hypoxia is the environmental state where dissolved oxygen in water can’t support aquatic organisms.

Illinois has the longest stretch of Mississippi riverfront property along, and officials have long set goals for reducing the amount of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) that flow into the river, which contributes to an aquatic dead zone bigger than some states. Agriculture isn’t the lone culprit, but it’s been the biggest for longest.

In September 2021, state officials issued a biennial report required by the state’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Plan. While the report touts advancements in outreach to growers, the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and other groups, the news was also bad.

In 2015, Illinois officials set a long-term goal of 45% reduction goal for reductions of both N and P loads from a 1980 to 1996 baseline to improve water quality. Interim goals included a 15% reduction for N and a 25% reduction in phosphorus by 2025.

Instead, nutrient records show a 13% increase for N and a 35% increase for P over the 1980-1996 baseline. Nutrients haven’t just missed reduction goals for 2019 and 2021. They actually increased.

The Big Nutrient Stream

The Mississippi River basin ranges as far west as the Idaho-Montana border, as far north as Canada, as far…

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Brian o connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the former Lead Content Editor for Conservation Agriculture in November 2021. He previously worked in daily print journalism for more than a decade in places as far flung as Alaska and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he shared a national award for coverage of two Category 5 hurricanes that struck the islands in 2017. He's also taught English in Korea, delivered packages for Amazon, and coordinated Wisconsin election night coverage for the Associated Press. His first job was on a Southeast Wisconsin farm.

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