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Illinois, Chicago among top water polluters

April 02, 2009 at 02:18 PM

For the first time, the U.S. Geological Survey has identified the top 150 polluting watersheds in the Mississippi River Basin that cause the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution are the main causes of the dead zone, an 8,000 square mile area in the Gulf where low oxygen levels are so low that fish and other marine life suffocate. Illinois generally and Chicago in particular are identified as the biggest sources of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution killing the Gulf. Based on the USGS report released today, members of the Mississippi River Water Quality Collaborative urge the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state policy makers to use the report to solve water pollution problems both within the states and downstream in the Gulf.

The USGS identifies and ranks watersheds in the Basin by how much pollution from them gets to the Gulf and contributes to the Dead Zone.  The watershed containing Chicago is the top contributor of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which reaches the Gulf via the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers. “We’ve been working with Chicago-area sewage treatment plants to reduce their nutrient pollution – this report justifies the importance of addressing this form of pollution, not just for Illinois waters, but because of the serious problems it causes as far away as the Gulf of Mexico,” said Glynnis Collins, Executive Director of Prairie Rivers Network, one of the Collaborative partner organizations.

“Unlike Milwaukee and many other cities, the Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District does not treat its discharge to remove phosphorus and, like all but a few Illinois dischargers, does nothing to address nitrogen pollution; this cannot go on,” said Albert Ettinger, Senior Staff Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center. 

In addition to the Chicago watershed, many of the other top 150 watersheds fall within Illinois but are located in areas that contain extensive soybean and corn fields.  Runoff during rainstorms and field tile drainage transport fertilizers and animal waste into Illinois rivers and lakes.  When phosphorus and nitrogen pollution become especially severe, algal blooms and fish kills can occur in local waters. Evidence is mounting that the mandated rush to plant corn – one of the most fertilizer intensive crops – for ethanol exacerbates water pollution problems within the states and in the Gulf. 

“Currently, federal Farm Bill conservation dollars are not targeted to where the pollution is generated. This new report should help states focus their pollution reduction efforts in the top ranked watersheds and on the most cost-effective practices,” said Michelle Perez, Senior Agriculture Analyst for the Environmental Working Group. “A targeted approach to farm conservation programs will help demonstrate to taxpayers that states are trying to use their resources wisely and get the biggest bang for the buck.”

“This report demonstrates that pollution doesn’t respect state boundaries,” said Matt Rota, Water Resources Program Director for the Gulf Restoration Network. “Many of the top-polluting river and stream basins occupy multiple states. Downstream states like Louisiana and Mississippi are counting on a multi-state effort to address the Dead Zone. This study will hopefully help states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase and target farm conservation funding to help reduce the Dead Zone, which is a major national environmental problem.”

Nine states contribute over 70 percent of the dead zone-causing nitrogen and phosphorus pollutants: Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi.

The USGS report, “Incorporating Uncertainty into the Ranking of SPARROW Model Nutrient Yields from the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River Basin Watersheds” is available online at

The Mississippi River Water Quality Collaborative is a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centers from states bordering the Mississippi River as well as regional and national groups working on issues affecting the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The Collaborative harnesses the resources and expertise of its diverse organizations to comprehensively reduce pollution entering the Mississippi River as well as the Gulf of Mexico.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center is a Chicago-based environmental and economic development advocacy organization.  For more information, visit

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This means we should ban Chicago and sue Mayor Daley. I mean lets use their logic for once. I am sure the entire state will get waxed for the clean up, just like the entire state will get waxed if Chicago gets the Olympics, and when they don’t make enough money.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/02 at 08:48 PM

So much of the problem appears to be farmers use of fertilizers and pesticides that run off into the river system.  This is not just a “Chicago problem”.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 07:11 AM

wow must be a chicagocrat there , not often do i see people making excuses for chicago

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 08:16 AM

I do live in Chicago but far from a Democrat.  Grew up in Knox County. I just think that looking at facts is important.  Tough to blame this whole thing on Chicago.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 08:51 AM

So you have to blame the farmers even though it is clearly stated Chicago doesn’t treat their water for nitrogen or phosphorus…that must be the farmers fault too.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 12:13 PM

There are so many sources of nitrogen/phosphorus pollution including detergents, yard fertilizer/herbicides, agricultural fertilizers, and even animal waste. Simply put, more people = more pollution. It’s not surprising to see Chicago up there on the charts simply due to the human density. They really should crack down on the MWRDGC, though. However, I wonder how the rest of Illinois would measure up on a per-capita regional basis.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 01:27 PM

Not saying anyone is blameless just saying don’t trying laying this all on the farmer’s feet.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 01:56 PM

I still say we sue Chicago and mayor Daley and Todd Stroeger. They are in charge of the city, so they should be held accountable. Use the liberals tactics against them for once. And tell them to stop shipping their garbage downstate. And anything that is “sourced” from something called green, should be distrusted. Its like Phillip-Morris funding a study saying smoking does not cause lung cancer.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 02:10 PM

Lets make Chicago and surrounding burbs their own state, It can be called “Crooksville”.  Then the politicians take take turn screwing each other instead of everyone below I-80.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 06:58 PM

Look at the maps on the page linked in the article.  The hottest spots on the maps are major metropolitan areas.  Lawn fertilizer is much worse than ag chemicals.  Ag chemicals are applied at levels just enough to grow that year’s crops where people in the burbs and subdivisions apply more fertilizer just because the neighbor’s yard is a shade darker green.  Much has been done to reduce ag runoff.  No-till, min-till, grass waterways, filter strips, riparian buffers, etc.  If you were to look at a study from 20 years ago on the same subject, I would suspect the whole cornbelt was the same color black as Chicago is today or at least close to it.  A lot has been done to minimize chemical runoff from ag fields since then.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/03 at 09:46 PM

Of course Chicago produces a higher density of chemical byproducts than downstate areas.  Cook County is the second most populated county in the US.  I would really like to see the per capita pollution levels in Illinois.  I would bet that Chicago is very low.  I don’t know about the burbs but in the city we have 25’ x 125’ lots generally and it is rare to see a fertilized lawn.  I agree that Chicago has a lot of problems but I don’t think that it is the sole proximate cause of this problem. 

Also, last time I checked George Ryans was from downstate.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/04 at 09:08 AM

I get the impression that you don’t know what per capita means.  Per capita means “per person”.  I would be willing to bet that the per capita output of nitrogen and phosphorus are lower than in most downstate communities.  We just don’t have the per capita area to generate as much as you do.  I’m sure that you are right and there are some needles and used condoms in chicago waters although I’ve never caught one. The neon green fish must eat them. smile

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/04 at 12:08 PM

Maybe so, jcurri, but I bet per acre Chicago and its surrounding counties produce more volume of polutant than the rest of the state combined.  How much “recycled” water is Chicago discharging compared to the rest of the state?  Per capita, Chicago could do a lot for the environment by eliminating nitrogen and phosphorus being release with the recycled water.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/04 at 07:55 PM

Of course we produce more pollution.  Once again, Cook County is the second most populated county in the US.  You said “I bet Chicago and its surrounding counties produce more volume of pollutants than the rest of the state combined.”  That makes no sense.  You can’t compare geographic areas.  Chicago is tiny geographically compared to downstate.  I agree with you that we need to improve our water purification but farmers also need to limit the amount of pollutants that runoff into our rivers.  I have seen the change in the Gulf in the past 20 years and it is scary.  This is a midwest problem that is destroying the Gulf of Mexico not just a “Chicago problem.”

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/04 at 09:22 PM

Actually, the government (USGS, EPA, etc) does have a means to determine per-capita pollution output on a regional basis. Using their spatial databases that includes county-level census data, the USGS could easily reconstruct their models to include a weighting factor that normalizes their pollution estimates by population. In my opinion, that would be more meaningful. All this current study does is state the obvious…

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/05 at 04:31 PM

Does the Chicago elitist realize that Kankakee IL is not “downstate”?  Of course you probably consider southern IL south of route 80, and that everyone past that boundary has one tooth and is a racist redneck with a gun rack and a “Git R Dun” sticker on their pick up truck. Or where you confused to where Mr. Ryan’s political roots actually took shape?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/06 at 12:55 PM

The MWRDGC is an independent unit of local government (sanitation district) that receives it’s funding from Cook County tax payers. The MWRDGC’s lack of treatment for N/P is alarming. That is for certain (hopefully that will change). However, the bulk of this USGS study is comparing apples to oranges when describing the geographical pollution output without controlling for regional population size. And that does matter if you want to get to the root of the problem (human behaviors, land-use decisions, etc). Not saying Chicago will look squeeky clean if/when a more appropriate analysis is done, but at least it will carry more weight and be more meaningful.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/06 at 01:28 PM

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