Cleaning Lake Bloomington

“Effective watershed management will require farmer engagement, broad outreach within the agricultural community and collaboration with state agricultural agencies, private organizations and research universities.”

--Maria Lemke, Aquatic Ecologist for the Conservancy in Illinois

Since the severe two-year drought of 1988, city officials in Bloomington, Illinois, have been playing a game of teeter totter between Lake Bloomington and Lake Evergreen—the city’s two sources of drinking water.

In an effort to keep nitrate levels in the lakes below 10mg/L—the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for safe drinking water—the city dilutes and blends water from Lake Evergreen with water from the smaller Lake Bloomington. But with nitrate levels at times exceeding 14 mg/L, this solution hasn’t always worked and the EPA has noticed.

High nitrogen concentrations can cause algal blooms that lead to taste and odor problems in drinking water and, in some cases, may be associated with “blue baby syndrome,” which causes a baby’s skin to appear blue-gray in color due to a lack of oxygen in the blood. Nitrogen-laden waters can also distress fish and other animals and contributes to gulf hypoxia, or the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

A Sustainable Solution

The Nature Conservancy in Illinois, the City of Bloomington and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have signed a memorandum of agreement to protect Bloomington’s drinking water supply. Putting more than 20 years of research into action, this project is designed to improve water quality and protect quantities by launching a voluntary, incentive-based program to help farmers and agricultural landowners install wetlands in strategic locations that will filter agricultural drainage water.

These wetlands will capture and denitrify water from tile drains before it reaches drinking water reservoirs and the Mackinaw River. This will provide benefits to not only Bloomington’s water supply and local wildlife, but also to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, a recent economic analysis commissioned by the project partners reported that using wetlands to clean excess nitrates is one-third the cost of building and maintaining a nitrate removal facility.

“Constructing wetlands within farm fields is a sustainable, cost effective approach to cleaning the city of Bloomington’s drinking water,” said Bob Moseley, director of conservation for the Conservancy in Illinois. “The success of this program, however, depends on the collaboration of many key partners, including farmers and agricultural landowners, McLean County, the town of Normal, universities, farm and conservation organizations and other local, state and federal agencies.”

Leveraging the Farm Bill

The project will leverage U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Bill funds to cover 90 percent of the wetland construction costs to landowners. The remaining 10 percent of construction costs will be covered through several private and public sources, leaving no cost to the landowner. Farm Bill funds will also help offset the loss of crop production by paying the landowner 15 years of soil rental plus a 20 percent bonus and a $100/acre signing incentive.

“I think when a lot of operators look at this, they think, ‘I can’t afford to take ground out of production,’” said John Franklin, whose family has owned a farm in Lexington, Illinois, since 1858 and has implemented wetlands to help the Conservancy with research. “But I think if you look a little closer, the government has been pretty generous and the payments for the wetlands are pretty competitive with what market rates might be.”

The Conservancy is working with project partners to conduct producer, landowner and public outreach of the project. Currently, a handful of landowners are in the process of signing onto the project. One goal of this project is to use economic analyses, watershed mapping and wetland data to determine the total acreages needed to have a cumulative watershed impact.

“If you can take three percent of production out of the ground and convert it to a wetland, you would remove a lot of the nitrates and other things that aren’t good for the water,” Franklin said. “Is the three percent reduction worthwhile? I believe so, and I believe it’s a small price to pay to keep the water safe, not only locally but for everybody downstream as well.”

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