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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Addressing farm field runoff: the MWRD works with downstate agricultural producers to protect area water quality

Protecting local and downstream waterways does not stop at water reclamation plants. In addition to our efforts to transform wastewater into clean water, the MWRD also lends its efforts to farmers and academic researchers looking to assess how we can better manage the runoff from farm fields that are packed with nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers. While these nutrients are essential for life, when too many nutrients are added to bodies of water, they can cause excessive growth of algae that depletes 

oxygen in the water and creates dead zones. 

People ride on trailers pulled by trucks through farmland

Studying nutrient loss reduction strategies

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 leaders from the agriculture sector and academic research all striving to develop various projects that share in a goal of improving downstream water quality.

How a downstate farm in Fulton County became the testing site

It is evident through our work that the MWRD maintains a firm grasp on managing nutrients to protect water quality, but it was also important to have a location to study this important work outside of Chicago. The MWRD had just the spot in mind. About 190 miles southwest of Chicago and 40 miles southwest of Peoria, sits a lush 13,500-acre property between Canton and Cuba, Illinois, that the MWRD has owned and maintained since 1970. 

Award winning Prairie Plan

Hay bales in a green field

The MWRD purchased the barren strip-mined land and restored it to fertile land using MWRD biosolids. We converted approximately 4,000 acres to productive farmland and created berms throughout the farm 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. 

Protecting watersheds and downstream communities

Years later, the farm fields have become the ideal site to develop and test best management practices to reduce source nutrient runoff. Our research and demonstration projects include cover crops that are used to enrich soils rather than harvests, grass buffer strips and creative irrigation systems that recycle nutrients and water. Through these projects, we can best understand how to protect a watershed from these unwanted nutrients. To learn more about these demonstration projects, read the Fulton County Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies Newsletter.

Motivating collaboration and meeting goals

People stand in a field with an exhibit on an easel

The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) was established in 2015 to reduce total phosphorus (25 percent) and total nitrogen (15 percent) loads, 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. 

Field Days

The research and demonstration projects have spurred increasing collaboration among partners in new and exciting ways. Together, we have shared our 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. Our most recent field day in June 2023, drew 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. Additionally, we host IFB farmer leadership on several occasions for tours and discussions in the Chicago area. These regular meetings make for a steady dialogue and constant collaboration.

A group stands beside an easel in a cornfield

Shrinking the dead zone

In 2008 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Action Plan, establishing goals to reduce 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. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration reported that the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico had shrunk in 2022. 

Press Release
Fulton County Farm Bureau 2021 Nutrient Stewardship Field Day Video
Fulton County Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies Newsletter
Illinois Farm Bureau collaboration
Farmer Focus Group
Multifunctional Perennial Filter Strips