Illinois River Nitrate-Nitrogen Concentrations and Loads: Long-term Variation and Association with Watershed Nitrogen Inputs

J Environ Qual. 2016 Jul;45(4):1268-75. doi: 10.2134/jeq2015.10.0531.


The Illinois River is a major contributor of nitrate-N to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, where nitrate is a leading cause of summertime benthic hypoxia. Corn-soybean production on tile-drained land is a leading source of nitrate-N in this river system, in addition to municipal wastewater discharge. We calculated annual nitrate-N loads in the Illinois River at Valley City from 1976 to 2014 by linear interpolation. Although there was not a significant trend in annual loads during the entire study period, there was a significant downward trend in flow-weighted nitrate-N concentration after 1990 despite high concentrations in 2013 after the 2012 drought. Multivariate regression analysis revealed a statistically significant association between annual flow-weighted nitrate-N concentration and cumulative residual agricultural N inputs to the watershed during a 6-yr window. This suggests that declines in flow-weighted nitrate-N concentration may reflect increasing N use efficiency in agriculture and a depletion of legacy N stored in the watershed. The watershed appears to have transitioned from a state of stationarity in nitrate concentration to nonstationarity. The average annual nitrate-N load at Valley City from 2010 to 2014 was 10% less than the 1980-1996 average load, indicating recent progress toward Illinois' nutrient loss reduction milestone of 15% reduction by 2025 and ultimate target of 45% reduction.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Illinois
  • Mississippi
  • Nitrates / analysis*
  • Nitrogen / analysis*
  • Rivers
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*


  • Nitrates
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Nitrogen