The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the City of Bloomington’s Water Department have put years of water quality research into action by signing a memorandum to protect the city’s supply of drinking water. Some 80,000 residents get their drinking water from the Lake Bloomington and Lake Evergreen reservoirs where there have been periodic high levels of nitrate associated with agricultural crop runoff.
The groups signed the agreement to outline their roles in the Bloomington Drinking Watersheds Project, established to improve the quality of water that flows into Bloomington and Evergreen lake reservoirs. The groups will partner with farmers and agricultural landowners to construct wetlands that capture nitrogen in runoff at the edges of fields before it reaches the drinking water supply lakes. They are also collaborating to provide farmers with cost-effective practices to apply nitrogen more efficiently, reducing runoff while maintaining yields.
High concentrations of nitrogen can cause large algal blooms that lead to taste and odor problems in drinking water and, in some cases, may be associated with blue baby syndrome -- an illness that arises when an infant’s blood is unable to carry enough oxygen to body cells and tissue. Nitrogen-laden waters can also distress fish and other animals and has been reported to contribute to gulf hypoxia, also known as the “dead zone,” in the Gulf of Mexico.
The project will leverage Farm Bill funds to begin wetland construction later this year through the Farmable Wetlands Program within the USDA Program. These funds will cover about 90 percent of construction costs to landowners who sign on to the voluntary initiative with the remaining costs covered through several private and public sources.
Bloomington, located in central Illinois about 125 miles southwest of Chicago, has worked for many years to seek a cost-effective and permanent solution to reducing levels of nitrogen in its drinking water, but still found itself in jeopardy of exceeding Environmental Protection Agency human health standards. Research by The Nature Conservancy and University of Illinois in the Mackinaw River showed that nitrogen export from agricultural tile drainage in farm runoff could be reduced anywhere from 19-47 percent depending on the size of the wetland. Export of dissolved phosphorus, another nutrient of concern in relation to algal blooms and oxygen depletion, was also reduced by as much as 59 percent during the multi-year study.
“More than a decade of studies in the Mackinaw River watershed have been dedicated to finding farm-based solutions for both the local and national effects of nitrogen runoff,” said Bob Moseley, The Nature Conservancy’s conservation director in Illinois. “Not only will the Bloomington Watersheds Project protect the health of the residents of Bloomington, we also believe that applying conservation practices in headwater streams will be a less costly alternative to new infrastructure at the water treatment plant and will have the added benefit of protecting aquatic wildlife.”
Rick Twait, City of Bloomington’s Superintendent of Water Purifications, said that the city has been looking for techniques to improve water quality before it even enters the treatment plant.
“By establishing wetlands, our lakes and the waterways downstream from us could also benefit from better water quality."
Environmental Defense Fund brings experience in the science and implementation of agricultural conservation, and experience with Farm Bill conservation programs.
“The Bloomington Watersheds Project is groundbreaking, because it combines highly effective placement of wetlands to filter tile drainage with an innovative approach to nutrient management,” said Suzy Friedman, Director of Agricultural Sustainability for Environmental Defense Fund. “With EDF’s extensive experience in these areas and the efforts of all of the program partners, we are creating a replicable model that will bring benefits to many more watersheds around the state and region.”
A preliminary economic report commissioned by the the partners shows that, wetlands installation reduces nitrogen for about one-third of the cost of building and maintaining a filter at the water treatment facility.
Farmers will be key partners in the success of the project and the McLean County Soil and Water Conservation District and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service are providing critical links to these agricultural producers. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is providing additional financial incentives for private landowners through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. In addition, Illinois State University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are developing new techniques for efficiently targeting conservation practices so they will have the greatest impact on stream water quality.
The project is supported by a variety of funding sources including the Grand Victoria Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, The Coca-Cola Company/WWF, Mosaic Company, USDA Farm Service Agency and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
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