Fertilizer Runoff, More and More
series as the Climate warms.
fertilizer washed from Midwestern fields is slowly poisoning the Gulf
Calderon, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
Published 7:39 PM
PST Nov. 30, 2021 Updated 9:47 PM PST Nov. 30, 2021
Located in the heart of America’s breadbasket, Champaign County,
Illinois, helps feed the nation’s demand for corn and soybeans while
fueling one of the more insidious impacts of climate change –
Every year, farmers apply tons of nitrogen fertilizer to the vast
swaths of crops that blanket Champaign’s flat landscape.
As rain carries unused fertilizer into the nearby Spoon River, it
spurs toxic algae growth downstream.
The excess nutrients flow with the waters from the Spoon into a series
of larger rivers until dumping into the Gulf of Mexico, fueling
a massive dead zone where
no life can survive.
The environmental devastation – increasing blooms and a consistently
growing dead zone – has been well documented for decades.
The field of harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie has grown from 300
square miles to over 700 square miles in less than a month. The algae
field, which makes up much of the western end of Lake Erie, is so
large that it would submerge Los Angeles and much of its surrounding
area.KIRILL4MULA / GETTY IMAGES
But changes in the way rain falls, as explained in a yearlong USA
TODAY investigation, have set the stage for things to get much worse,
many scientists now believe. The warming planet is bringing more
precipitation overall, and more downpours in particular, to the same
U.S. regions that grow a majority of America’s fertilizer-dependent
Champaign County, which has one of the nation’s top nitrogen surplus
amounts, is ground zero for this impact.
USA TODAY and Investigate Midwest analyzed spring precipitation data
and nitrogen levels between 2014 and 2020 in the Spoon River. The
analysis found that the kinds of extreme rainfall events made more
common by a warming planet cause three times as much fertilizer runoff
than other rain events and contribute to an outsized share of it in
The media outlets chose Champaign County because of its high rates of
nitrogen surplus for corn crops – No. 3 in the nation – and because
it’s one of relatively few places where the U.S. Geological Survey
tracks watershed nitrogen concentration over a multiyear period.
Nitrogen in the Spoon spiked 42 times during those seven springs that
the federal government tracked it. Thirty-six of the spikes came after
a rainfall, when the fertilizer attaches to the soil particles and
slips away from farm fields and into the river.
Sometimes, though, the rains came so fast and heavy that tens of
thousands of pounds of nitrogen fertilizer poured into the river and
sent levels soaring.
The three heaviest storms dumped one-third of all the nitrogen during
this time period into the Spoon River.
Flourish data visualization
The findings mirror a larger study conducted by several researchers
that found heavy rain across the Mississippi River Basin also
contributed to one-third
of the nitrogen that
flushed into the Gulf of Mexico. This heavy rain happens in just nine
days per year.
Among the most striking consequences of fertilizer runoff, the Gulf’s
dead zone spans the coasts of Louisiana and Texas and has rendered
uninhabitable some 6,330 square miles of water, according to recent
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The floating algae bloom has expanded and contracted over the past 35
years but consistently surpasses the target set by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency’s Hypoxia Task Force. The current
five-year average is nearly three times higher than the target.
A visual look: Learn more about the science behind the trend
But it’s not just the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizer runoff wreaks havoc
on rivers and lakes across the country. It contaminates drinking
water, harms aquatic life and sickens both people and pets. It has decimated
the manatee population in
Florida and fouled the Chesapeake Bay in the northeast.
Certain types of algae blooms, like cyanobacterial, cause respiratory
infections, gastrointestinal bleeding and vomiting and are responsible
for at least 321 emergency room visits in the United States between
2017 and 2019 alone, a Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention study found.
Worldwide, about 60,000 people annually are poisoned from algae
The blooms also emit methane, a greenhouse gas that exacerbates global
warming. The EPA
recently found the
emissions from blooms could increase 30% to 90% in the next century.
'Red tide' toxic algae bloom kills sea life and costs Florida millionsNAPLES-NEWS.COM
It’s a devastating feedback loop. Algae blooms contribute to global
warming, which increases rainfall, which then exacerbates fertilizer
In Illinois, the number of days with at least 2 inches of rainfall has
increased about 40% over the past century, according to the state’s 2021
And spring – when many farmers apply fertilizer – is expected to see
some of the largest gains in rainfall by the end of this century, the
At the same time, farmers have used increasingly more fertilizer.
Between 1960 and 1980, its
use on the nation’s top crops tripled –
from 7.5 metric tons applied annually to 23.7 million tons. Those
levels have hovered around the high point ever since.
Multiply what happens in Champaign County by the hundreds of
agricultural communities across the United States – and in the
Mississippi River Basin in particular.
One of the “strongest signals” of climate change is the increase in
precipitation intensity, said Trent Ford, Illinois’ state
climatologist. And one of its biggest challenges is the increase in
fertilizer runoff, he said.
Despite the problems, there is little government regulation of
fertilizer application and management. Unlike with pesticides, farmers
can use as much fertilizer as they want and face no fines or penalties
for exceeding safe amounts.
Regulating the application of chemical fertilizers and manure would be
difficult, said Richard Cruse, a professor of agronomy at Iowa State
University: “You would have to police virtually every acre that's
Governmental attempts to do just that have been consistently opposed
by agriculture groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Meanwhile, voluntary measures to reduce runoff – such as planting
cover crops – have been slow to take hold.
In Illinois, farmers planted a total of 1.4 million acres of cover
crops in 2019, but it will take an additional 20.7 million acres in
conjunction with other management practices to reach the EPA’s
long-term goals of nutrient reduction, according to the
state’s biennial report.
“They're not on the order of magnitude that we need to see to actually
have a change,” said Catie Gregg, an agriculture specialist at the
Illinois nonprofit Prairie Rivers Network. “Then this is further
complicated by climate change.”
More fertilizer, more problems
In late June, Champaign County farmer Ann Swanson looked on as the
gathering rain clouds darkened the sky.
Swanson, who runs a 10-acre organic farm growing tomatoes, peppers and
squash, knew the incoming rain spelled disaster for her crops.
The surprise soaker that fell over much of central Illinois that week
spawned tornadoes and put an abrupt end to outdoor events. It also
drenched the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area with
5.1 inches of rain.
Ann Swanson, manager of Hendrick House Farms, in a field whose crops
were ruined by heavy rains and flooding earlier in the growing season.
(Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative
MIDWEST CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING
That’s a half-inch above the area’s average rainfall amount for the
entire month, according to the Illinois State Water Survey at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The downpour caused most of Swanson’s 2,000 tomatoes to develop
bacterial spots, ending the season early.
“You just don't expect that much rain beyond June,” Swanson said. “It
was really disappointing."
Swanson is not in the Spoon River watershed, so any excess fertilizer
from her farm drains instead into the Kaskaskia River. But Swanson
employs a host of farming practices to ensure nutrients stay in her
At the beginning of every season, Swanson said, she samples her soil
to see how many nutrients it already has and adjusts her fertilizer
use accordingly. Instead of dumping it all on at the start of the
growing season, she applies it little by little as her crops grow.
See how precipitation has changed in your community
If the weather forecast shows heavy precipitation, she will wait until
drier conditions so that the crops can take in the most nutrients.
“That's exactly why ‘side dressing’ is generally more efficient,
because you're spoon-feeding the crop throughout the growing season,
as opposed to putting on this huge lump at the start of the season or
before the season even starts,” said Kelsey Griesheim, a graduate
student researcher in the Department of Natural Sciences and
Environmental Resources at the University of Illinois.
Swanson also uses cover crops. Planted in the off-season when fields
are usually bare, cover crops can improve the soil’s structure, making
it more like a “sponge,” Gregg said. They soak up excess water and
nutrients and also improve the overall health of the soil.
“With cover cropping,” Swanson said, “I want to make sure I'm putting
those nutrients back in the soil so I'm not constantly depleting them
of nutrients year after year.”
But Swanson is an exception.
Many farmers over apply fertilizer as a hedge against heavy rain, said
Cruse, the Iowa State University professor. It’s a cheap way to ensure
the most from each harvest, he said, but it exacerbates the runoff
problem.GHORNEPHOTO / GETTY
Many farmers over apply fertilizer as a hedge against heavy rain, said
Cruse, the Iowa State University professor. It’s a cheap way to ensure
the most from each harvest, he said, but it can exacerbate the runoff
"It's like an insurance policy," Cruse said. "Fertilizer costs, but
not having enough out there to optimize your yield costs even more."
Corn crops in Champaign County alone had an average of 31 million
pounds more nitrogen than they needed every year during the decade
ending in 2019, according to data compiled by Iowa State University
That’s the nation’s third-highest nitrogen surplus amount for corn,
which is one of the most fertilizer-dependent of all the crops.
Toxic and costly
Some 350 miles north of Champaign County, Erika Balza knows firsthand
the toxic and costly consequences of unchecked fertilizer runoff.
When the mother of two moved into her new husband’s house in rural
Kewaunee County, Wisconsin, outside Green Bay, nearly a decade ago,
she remembers him warning them not to drink the water.
“You can shower with it, you can do laundry with it, run the
dishwasher, but you cannot drink the water here,” she remembers him
The reason: Manure used as fertilizer on nearby farm fields seeps into
her family’s well after it rains, Balza said. The water has tested
positive for coliform bacteria several times.
It’s an especially dangerous situation for Balza because of her
compromised immune system from stage four metastatic breast cancer.
But that’s not the only problem.
One day in 2016, Balza said, she started her dishwasher before heading
upstairs for bed. As she turned the faucet on to brush her teeth, the
water poured out brown and smelled of manure. Testing revealed E. coli
and coliform bacteria.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and a donation from a
farmer covered the more than $13,000 cost of installing a new well to
run water to her house. But Balza had to purchase a new $700
dishwasher herself after the incident ruined the old one.
Brown water from the faucet of Erika Balza's home near Green Bay,
Wisconsin. Balza's well was contaminated with manure spread as
fertilizer on nearby farm fields, which made her water undrinkable.COURTESY
OF ERIKA BALZA
Even with the new well, she said, her water still shows evidence of
coliform and E. coli bacteria, as well as high levels of nitrates.
Balza said there’s a lack of oversight for farmers who apply manure.
“He walked away with a slap on the wrist,” she said of the farmer she
thinks was responsible for the runoff.
Communities’ water treatment facilities are just as at-risk as
Just a half-hour drive east of Champaign in the neighboring county of
Vermilion, the Aqua Illinois surface water treatment plant cleans the
water from Lake Vermilion that’s served to around 38,000 people.
Nitrates in the supply are a seasonal problem, said the plant’s
manager, David Cronk.
How a summer of extreme weather reveals a stunning shift in the way
rain falls in America.
In the spring – when some farmers apply fertilizer and a time of the
year that’s expected to see one of the greatest increases in rainfall
due to climate change – the nitrate concentration can be 12 to 13
milligrams per liter before the water is treated, he said. The federal
limit is 10 mg/L.
In the 1990s, when nitrate levels breached the federal limit,
residents were given bottled water, Cronk said. So, in 2000, a $4
million ion exchange unit was installed to filter the water.
Cronk said his plant works with farmers so they employ the best
methods to ensure nitrates aren’t getting into water.
“That's your main defense, honestly. We are the last defense,” Cronk
said. “We're making your water safe to drink here. But what's it doing
for the rest of the Mississippi River Basin? It’s still going there.”
Another problem communities across the country face from runoff is
toxic algae blooms in lakes and ponds.
McCloud Aquatics President T.J. McCloud (left) and Chris Hoffman
prepare a bentonite clay solution to treat algae growth in a pond in
Arlington Heights, Illinois, on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.IGNACIO
CALDERON, MIDWEST CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING
Ava Boswell, the environmental services manager at McCloud Aquatics, a
lake management company based in Northern Illinois, said cyanobacteria,
a type of toxic algae, has become more frequent in some agricultural
areas or areas with a lot of urban development in Illinois.
Although regular green algae was more commonly found by the company
than cyanobacteria, green algae can also deprive fish of oxygen if the
lake or pond is not treated, she said.
Although the decreased water quality they have seen could be due to an
overall increase in algae blooms, Boswell said it could also be
attributed to increased testing frequency.
‘Feeble, unfocused, and underfunded’
Attempts to regulate fertilizer application and runoff have been met
with stiff resistance from the agriculture industry.
That challenge is made even more difficult, ironically, by the 1972
Clean Water Act. Even though agriculture has long been identified as a
major source of water pollution, the nation’s landmark law explicitly
discharges from regulation.
As a result, efforts to address it have been “feeble, unfocused, and
underfunded,” a Vanderbilt University researcher named J.B. Ruhl wrote
and intense lobbying from farm groups has kept regulations with teeth
from being enacted.
That’s what happened in 2014 when the Obama administration sought to
define more broadly what waters were protected by the act in a move
that farmers called an overreach. They feared the government would try
to regulate their irrigation ditches, ponds and even puddles.
The American Farm Bureau Federation responded by launching a #DitchtheRule campaign
that framed the effort as a “land grab.”
State farm bureaus and other groups representing farmers also joined
the action, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2015,
the American Farm Bureau Federation spent $2.8 million lobbying on
issues that included clean water rules.
The EPA fired back with its own campaign called #DitchtheMyth to
combat what it called “misinformation.” Other tactics it employed, the
Government Accountability Office later found, violated
a law against
In the end, the rule fizzled.
The Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.LEDYARD KING, USA TODAY
A few years before that battle, in 2011, the EPA had warned that half
of U.S. streams had medium-to-high levels of nitrogen and that nitrate
drinking water violations had doubled in the previous eight years.
The agency issued this warning in what’s known as the “Stoner
and it proposed that states reduce those levels by focusing on several
areas, including agricultural fertilizer use.
But a decade later, Illinois and its stakeholders are still in the
process of implementing a plan to reduce runoff.
“You're trying to affect change on about 22 million acres of cropland
that's operated by about 72,000 independent farmers, and that's a big
lift,” said Trevor Sample, who coordinates the Illinois Nutrient Loss
Reduction Strategy Implementation for the state’s EPA.
Rain in the Midwest is killing marine life in the Gulf. The culprit?
Fertilizer in America's waterways. Climate change is making it worse.
The state EPA is one of several partners in the ongoing effort to
reduce runoff. Others include the state Department of Agriculture and
the Illinois Farm Bureau.
The groups took the Stoner memo to heart, said Lauren Lurkins,
Illinois Farm Bureau’s director of environmental policy. “Now we're
firmly in the middle of implementation of our strategy of a very
complex environmental challenge.”
Charles Meier, a Republican lawmaker, said the majority of farmers are
already doing their best to leave the environment better for the next
“A farmer doesn't want to pay for fertilizer that's gonna end up
washing and leaching down into the water either,” he said. “We want to
keep fertilizer in the soil.”
There are signs some government programs are gaining traction.
In Illinois, the Fall Covers for Spring Savings program offers a $5
insurance discount for every cover crop acre enrolled. During the
2019-20 growing season, the state had funding for 50,000 acres.
The allotment was filled just one week after opening.
Last season, the allotment was met in 12 hours, with an additional
130,050 acres that had been requested, according to the state’s
biennial report. Now, the program will double its acre cap, according
to the state’s EPA.
Blue-Green Algae or pond scum, cyanobacteria harmful algae.ALEXLKY/GETTY
Beyond holding in fertilizer, cover crops may improve how much food a
farm produces. Farms that used cover crops for at least five straight
years could expect a 3% increase in corn production and about a 5%
increase in soybean production, according to Sustainable
Agriculture Research and Education,
a program supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ann Williams, a Democratic state representative in Illinois and chair
of the state’s energy and environment committee, said many in the
agricultural community are adapting as they see these benefits.
“Notwithstanding the climate impacts, it has benefits to their yields,
to their profits,” she said. “That's when you really are able to make
a real strong argument that implementation adoption is not just in the
best interests of the community and the globe at large, but in your
own, economic best interest.”
State Representative Ann Williams, D-Illinios
Notwithstanding the climate impacts, it has benefits to their yields,
to their profits. That's when you really are able to make a real
strong argument that implementation adoption is not just in the best
interests of the community and the globe at large, but in your own,
economic best interest.
But implementing all the necessary management practices in agriculture
can be expensive – about $789 million per year to reduce nitrogen and
phosphorus in long-term goals, according to the state’s biennial
“The reality is that addressing and mitigating the damage from the
climate crisis is going to take long-term, aggressive, sustained
action in all levels of government,” Williams said. “I think that it's
going to take a combination of education (and) more resources
allocated to the agriculture community.”
The time to act is now, said Prairie Rivers Network’s Gregg, otherwise
it will be even more difficult to adapt.
“As we see the weather changing, it's getting harder to get where we
want to go,” she said. “There really isn't a perfect time to try
something new, but this is something that is getting worse.”
This story is a collaboration between USA TODAY and the Midwest Center
for Investigative Reporting. The center is an independent, nonprofit
newsroom based in Illinois offering investigative and enterprise
coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues. USA TODAY is
funding a fellowship at the center for expanded coverage of
agribusiness and its impact on communities.
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