Reducing nitrate loads from corn and soybean, tile-drained, agricultural production systems in the Upper Mississippi River basin is a major challenge that has not been met. We evaluated a range of possible management practices from biophysical and social science perspectives that could reduce nitrate losses from tile-drained fields in the Upper Salt Fork and Embarras River watersheds of east-central Illinois. Long-term water quality monitoring on these watersheds showed that nitrate losses averaged 30.6 and 23.0 kg nitrate N ha-1 yr-1 (Embarras and Upper Salt Fork watersheds, respectively), with maximum nitrate concentrations between 14 and 18 mg N L-1. With a series of on-farm studies, we conducted tile monitoring to evaluate several possible nitrate reduction conservation practices. Fertilizer timing and cover crops reduced nitrate losses (30% reduction in a year with large nitrate losses), whereas drainage water management on one tile system demonstrated the problems with possible retrofit designs (water flowed laterally from the drainage water management tile to the free drainage system nearby). Tile woodchip bioreactors had good nitrate removal in 2012 (80% nitrate reduction), and wetlands had previously been shown to remove nitrate (45% reductions) in the Embarras watershed. Interviews and surveys indicated strong environmental concern and stewardship ethics among landowners and farmers, but the many financial and operational constraints that they operate under limited their willingness to adopt conservation practices that targeted nitrate reduction. Under the policy and production systems currently in place, large-scale reductions in nitrate losses from watersheds such as these in east-central Illinois will be difficult.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Environmental Engineering
- Water Science and Technology
- Waste Management and Disposal
- Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law