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Illinois farmers are major contributors to the Gulf of Mexico’s ‘dead zone’; here’s a way to help

The nutrients and nitrates in soil and underground pipes on farms is building up in the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. With the help of a satur...

REYNOLDS, Illinois – Farmers are learning about new ways to keep natural chemicals, or nitrates, from flowing downriver to the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a loss a lot of farmers are starting to notice and some are looking to replenish, like Bob Ward, a farm renter in Henry County.

“I haven’t really heard about it until today, most of this is new to me,” says Ward.

The state of Illinois contributes 20% to what conservationists call the "dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The cause is mainly due to nutrients and nitrates found in soil on farms and old tile underground pipes.  Water washing through both the soil and tile pipes are washing nitrates into the Mississippi River and Rock River, which flow downstream to the Gulf of Mexico.

To help cut back on the nitrate build-up, researchers are influencing farmers to use a saturated buffer.

The buffer looks like a box, but the filtration system is what farmers install underground.

Instead of going into old tile pipes full of nitrates, the water goes out into a new underground pipe with holes in it – the saturated buffer.

“We are seeing 40% to 60% reductions in the amount of nitrate nitrogen in those waters,” explains Ann Staudt, a researcher at Iowa State University.  She brought the buffer from Ames, Iowa to teach farmers how it works at a workshop run by University of Illinois Extension and Rock Island County Soil and Water Conservation District.  The workshop focused on ways farmers can conserve on their farm such as wetlands, cover crops, and filter strips.

Currently, only 5-10% of farmers are practicing conservation and only 20 to 30 farmers in Illinois and Iowa have a saturated buffer.

“We just need a way to get the farmers to be invested, this is how we save our planet,” says Dawn Temple, of Rock Island County Soil and Water Conservation District.

A saturated buffer can cost up to $4,000, but researchers say they can last forever.