One of Illinois’ top water quality problems is nutrient pollution caused by high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in our waters. Nutrients are present in discharges from sewage treatment plants, are found in fertilizers, and come from industry sources, notably Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). When water containing nitrogen and phosphorus flows underground or into nearby rivers, lakes, and streams, the impacts are slow to manifest but often devastating.
Algae overgrowth brought on by nutrient pollution can render drinking water sources unusable because of cyanobacteria (commonly referred to as blue-green algae); overrun lakes and ponds with a foul-smelling green gunk; make people and/or animals swimming in the water sick; scuttle recreational opportunities and hobble associated businesses; and diminish property values. The effects of algae overgrowth are felt throughout Illinois. Results from 13 Illinois water bodies sampled in 2012 indicate that cyanobacteria and associated cyanotoxins are a concern for Illinois residents — 10 of the 13 water bodies indicated a high probability of acute health effects during recreational exposure from cyanobacteria, and one had a very high probability. Phosphorus is a major cause of impairment in Illinois streams as are low dissolved oxygen levels which are often caused by algae overgrowth fed by excess nutrients. Phosphorus and aquatic algae are also among the major causes of impairment in Illinois lakes.
Nutrient pollution is not only harming Illinoisans. The northern Gulf of Mexico hosts one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world but unprecedented levels of nitrogen and phosphorus have overloaded the system, resulting in the largest “dead zone” of hypoxic (low oxygen) water in the world. More troubling is that Illinois is a significant contributor of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution causing the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.
- The Livestock Management Facilities Act should be revised to protect waterways and to provide a more meaningful role for the public in the permitting process.
- Opportunities for phosphorous-containing fertilizers to enter waterways from urban non-point sources should be limited through bans or other efforts and construction and permit standards must emphasize nutrient reduction.
- Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club’s page on nutrient pollution.
- The Illinois Stewardship Alliance explains the Mississippi River Basin Initiative, an agreement between 12 states (including Illinois) to voluntarily implement conservation practices that avoid, control, and trap nutrient runoff; improve wildlife habitat; and maintain agricultural productivity.
- Share of the nutrient flux delivered to the Gulf of Mexico from States in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya River Basins. Illinois leads in both Nitrogen and Phosphorous.
- Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council
- Cooperative Federalism, Nutrients, and the Clean Water Act. Study published by Tulane University, coverage of nutrient pollution begins on page 4.
- Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Nutrient Reduction Loss Strategy.
- Prairie Rivers Network on the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.
- Dr. Francis Thicke explaining how to reduce nitrogen leakage from farms.
- Learn more about the Midwest Pesticide Action Center’s work to promote healthy lawn and landscape practices.
- National Great Rivers Research & Education Center scholars and scientists study the ecology of the big rivers, the workings of the watersheds that feed them, and the ties to the river communities that use them.