By Morgan Greene

Hundreds of miles south of Chicago, decomposing algae in the Gulf of Mexico makes life so perilous for fish they swim away — or die.

These dead zones, which result from algae blooms sapping up oxygen, have increased in oceans around the world as waters warm.

Illinois is among the top feeders to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, as nutrients from sewage treatment plants, and farm fertilizer and manure, eventually flow into the Mississippi River.

The state is not only missing benchmarks to reduce nutrients, the problem is growing. This doesn’t bode well for a goal created by a federal task force to reduce the dead zone’s five-year average size by thousands of square miles.

While sewage treatment plants have reduced their contributions through permit limits, addressing pollution on farms largely depends on voluntary efforts. Agriculture accounts for the majority of the nutrients.

How to encourage farming conservation practices is up for debate — with possibilities including more regulation, more incentives, more funding and even a nutrient trading system — as climate change threatens more intense storms capable of sending more nutrients into water through erosion and runoff.

In Illinois, one approach being considered is nutrient trading.

The Illinois Nutrient Trading Initiative began in 2018, led by the nonprofit Current, the University of Chicago’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic and Gerald Keenan, former chairman of the Illinois Pollution Control Board.

Proponents of the market-based approach argue it offers more flexibility in meeting requirements. Credits could be generated by sewage treatment plants overcomplying or farms implementing best practices beyond a baseline. Small scale attempts are underway in neighboring states, including Iowa.

“We find ourselves facing a conundrum — lower-cost nutrient reductions are achievable, but agricultural sources that could provide those reductions have few incentives and insufficient capital to do so,” said a conveners report on the initiative, released this month. “At the same time, there is opportunity, as farmers are urgently searching for means to diversify their revenue streams and weather financial challenges.”

“This report in my mind is designed to be a catalyst,” said Mark Templeton, director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic.

Designing a trading program could involve significant challenges, including verifying farm reductions and keeping an eye on pollution hot spots that might emerge.

But it would not be about regulating the agricultural sector more broadly, Templeton said.

“This is about additional carrots, additional incentives, additional opportunities for agricultural producers to make money and have the environmental benefits as well,” Templeton said.

States shared updates on their reduction strategies recently at a task force meeting. To some, the path forward seems likely to take a variety of tools.

Gail Hesse, Great Lakes water program director for the National Wildlife Federation, worked on water programs for decades with the Ohio EPA. Farms vary widely, Hesse said, and when it comes to regulation, “I think how that question gets answered will be different for every state.”

“The reality is, there’s no singular fix.”

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Areas of Focus: Abrams Environmental Law Clinic
Abrams Environmental Law Clinic
The Abrams Environmental Law Clinic attempts to solve some of the most pressing environmental problems throughout Chicago, the State of Illinois, and the Great Lakes region.
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