Protecting local and downstream waterways from excessive nutrients does not stop at water reclamation plants. In addition to the MWRD’s efforts to recover nutrients from the wastewater treatment process, the MWRD is lending its efforts to the agricultural sector, academic researchers, and non-point source polluters to assess ways to reduce nutrient runoff from farm fields. The MWRD voluntarily established a program at its Fulton County test site to foster collaboration with the agricultural sector to develop and expedite nutrient reduction practices. The work has led to increased partnership between the MWRD, Illinois Farm Bureau and other entities all striving to develop various projects that share in a goal of improving downstream water quality.
The 13,500-acre property is located in between Canton and Cuba, Illinois, about 190 miles southwest of Chicago and 40 miles southwest of Peoria. It was originally purchased in 1970 to restore strip-mined land, and approximately 4,000 acres were converted to productive farmland. The MWRD also created berms throughout the agricultural fields to better collect runoff and capture nutrients to preserve area water quality. Known as the “Prairie Plan,” the restoration effort was honored by the American Society of Civil Engineers as the outstanding engineering achievement of the year in 1974. Years later it became the ideal site to develop and test best management practices to reduce non-point source nutrients. Research and demonstration projects include inter-seeded cover cropping, riparian grass buffer, denitrifying bioreactors, runoff irrigation, subirrigation, drainage water managements, designer biochar, and watershed-scale nutrient reduction demonstration. To learn more about these demonstration projects, read the Fulton County Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies Newsletter.
The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) was established in 2015 to reduce total phosphorus (25 percent) and total nitrogen (15 percent) loads by 2025, with the long-term goal of a 45-percent reduction of the loss of these nutrients to the Mississippi River. Through collaboration with the IFB, the MWRD is helping the NLRS reach its goal. The research and demonstration projects have spurred increased collaboration among partners in new and exciting ways, sharing their work to regional agricultural communities, through annual field days, workshops and publications. Every summer, the partners come together to host a field day on the Fulton County site. These field days draw crowds of people and area farmers to hear MWRD clean water experts’ and soil scientists’ research presentations showcasing research on water quality and practices to reduce nutrient loss. Partners have also had the opportunity to showcase Illinois’ efforts on the national stage at the Annual Water Resources Conference of the Universities Council on Water Resources and the National Institutes for Water Resources held in Utah. Additionally, MWRD has hosted IFB farmer leadership on several occasions for tours and discussions of their operations in the Chicagoland area. Regular meetings, both in-person and conference or video calls make for a steady dialogue and constant collaboration.
In 2008 the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Action Plan, establishing goals to reduced nitrate-nitrogen and total phosphorus discharged into rivers. In 2011, the EPA provided a recommended framework for states like Illinois in the Mississippi River Basin to develop plans to reduce the amount of nutrients discharged into rivers, leading to the 2015 creation of the NLRS. Since 2015, research and demonstration projects have been established at the site in collaboration with many partners such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Crop Science Department, UIUC Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, Illinois Central College, Ecosystem Exchange, IFB, and Fulton County Farm Bureau.
In July 2016, the MWRD Board of Commissioners approved a purchase order and agreement with the UIUC to conduct four years of research on the use of perennial riparian grass buffer strip at the Fulton County site to reduce nutrient loss from agricultural fields in an amount not to exceed $207,800. The project evaluates the likelihood of adoption of the grass buffer strip by farmers, as a practice to contribute to achieving the goals of the NLRS.
In 2018, it was announced that the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council (NREC) had awarded a $350,000 grant to research partners from UIUC and the MWRD to evaluate drainage water recycling as an effective management practice to reduce nutrients from escaping to local waterways while optimizing crop yield at reduced fertilizer application rates.
In 2020, the partners received a $1 million grant from the EPA to develop and scale up an innovative bioreactor and treatment system to effectively capture nutrients from subsurface drainage water, recycle nutrient-captured biochars as a slow-release fertilizer, and keep nutrients in the closed agricultural loop. Also, in 2020, an internal-facing virtual focus group was held with the public, including Farm Bureau staff, UIUC and MWRD researchers and farmers to discuss ongoing efforts at length and plans for future work within the partnership.
The partners involved in this project look forward to continuing to explore ways to strengthen their collaboration, with the goal of bringing farmers and the MWRD research team together at the Fulton County research and demonstration site in 2021.