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1 big thing: Illinois water pollution getting worse

Illinois waterways saw a double-digit rise in harmful pollutants over the past five years, according to a new state report. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios.

Posted on October 7, 2021

Chicagoans were shocked last week to see a rust-colored substance from an Indiana water treatment plant ooze into Lake Michigan.

Why it matters: Water polluted with these chemicals [including nitrogen and phosphorus] can cause “blue baby syndrome,” a condition that starves infants of oxygen. High levels have also been linked to cancer in adults.

  • They can also reduce the amount of oxygen in the water, harming wildlife and causing algal blooms.
  • By some estimates, Illinois runoff is responsible for 20% of the nitrate causing the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Driving the news: A new Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) report shows these chemicals rising in our waters by double digits even though the state’s goal was to reduce them by 45% by 2025.

Context: Environmental group The Prairie Rivers Network published a report this summer saying rural drinking water is under-tested for nitrate.

  • High levels of nitrite have been found in public wells along the Illinois River but little testing is done on private wells.

Yes, but some of that was due to rain: Trevor Sample, the IEPA’s Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy coordinator, acknowledged that in the last five years, nitrogen levels were up 13% and phosphorus was up 35%. He also pointed out that water flow was up 25% due to increased rain.

  • “When you have increased flow, you have increased runoff and you have increased nutrient loads,” he tells Axios.

Looking forward: In a world where we expect more heavy precipitation events, there are still ways to prevent severe runoff.

  • Sample says the IEPA is working to give farmers more education and resources, one being the Partners for Conservation cost-share program that, among other things, gives farmers money to use cover crops rather than chemicals to replace nutrients in their soil.
  • More funding for that program could help since “the demand for it far exceeds what’s allocated,” Sample says.


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