An innovative solution is within reach to address excessive nitrogen and phosphorus from Illinois that threaten drinking water and choke aquatic life, including in the Gulf of Mexico, according to water quality experts.

The solution, a trading system for pollution reduction, is a cost-effective means to incentivize Illinois farms to adopt new practices and technologies to prevent nutrients from reaching waterways.

The findings are contained in a white paper on the Illinois Nutrient Trading Initiative being released today by Current, the non-profit water quality innovation organization; and the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

Current and the Abrams Clinic convened stakeholders beginning in 2018 to evaluate market-based solutions that would reduce levels of nitrogen and phosphorus that end up in Illinois streams and rivers, as well as in the Mississippi River and ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico. Excess nutrients feed the growth of algae, which consumes so much oxygen that it creates enormous “dead zones” in bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico. Locally, algae can be toxic for people and pets and can foul drinking water.

Nutrients come from many sources, including farms, sewage treatment facilities, and run-off from lawns and golf courses. Run-off from Illinois farms is one of the major contributors to these dead zones, and the agricultural community has identified new technologies and practices to limit nutrients leaving farmlands.

“Looking ahead, we must collectively find ways to achieve water quality at the lowest cost to all. Agriculture is in a unique position to voluntarily adopt solutions on the farm, where the environmental impacts are far greater, and the expense is far less,” said Chris Kopman, general manager of Newtrient, a company that provides manure management technologies and participated in the study.

Current and the Abrams Clinic have concluded that, despite challenges, conditions are generally favorable to move forward in Illinois with a market-based nutrient trading system.

“A well-designed nutrient trading program could deliver strong economic opportunities and verifiable environmental benefits at lower costs,” said Alaina Harkness, executive director of Current.

“We know that the 20th century regulatory approach isn’t working to address this defining water quality problem of the 21st century,” said Mark Templeton, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Abrams Environmental Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. “After three years of work, we have found that there are opportunities to align the interests of the agricultural community, municipal wastewater plant operations and watershed groups to address these challenges.”

Related programs in Iowa and Wisconsin provide valuable insights into how a trading system could work. The geography of Illinois’ nutrient sources and the features of agriculture practices in the state – such as existing drainage systems that would allow for significant monitoring – increase the likelihood of success.

In a simplified example, a dairy producer would adopt environmentally friendly features on their land, which would be assigned a credit value based on the volumes of nutrients they credibly prevent from entering a waterway. Then, a facility like a wastewater treatment plant could buy those credits to meet its own regulatory requirements, rather than making more expensive upgrades to its equipment — creating revenue for the dairy producer to invest in solutions while improving water quality and reducing compliance costs funded by utility ratepayers.

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