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Illinois project to show Midwest farmers how to grow wetlands for cleaner water

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 12:10 p.m. CST

PRINCETON — In an agricultural watershed in north-central Illinois, Alliance Pipeline is supporting the work of nonprofit organization the Wetlands Initiative (TWI) to recruit farmers to try out a new conservation practice: Constructed wetlands to reduce excess nutrients from tile drainage. A two-year, $60,000 grant is benefiting the organization’s project to show how returning wetlands to the farming landscape can produce cleaner water locally and far downstream, while providing landowners with a new source of income.

An Illinois-based nonprofit dedicated to restoring the Midwest’s wetland resources, TWI is conducting one-on-one outreach in the Big Bureau Creek Watershed to find landowners willing to install a constructed wetland on their property to demonstrate its effectiveness in treating tile-drainage runoff. Illinois has lost more than 90 percent of its original wetlands and is also the top contributor of nutrient pollution into the Mississippi River, which ultimately fuels the Gulf of Mexico’s toxic “dead zone.” Through a water quality credit trading market, farmers that voluntarily install wetlands on their land could be paid for the nutrient removal service those wetlands provide.

“TWI’s project will provide an important benefit to the local community — in the short run by helping individual farmers try out this new conservation practice, and in the long run by developing a system to reward many landowners for returning valuable wetland systems to the landscape,” said Rob Gray, spokesperson for Alliance Pipeline. “We are proud to support this effort as part of our commitment to environmental stewardship in the areas where we operate.”

Leading TWI’s outreach effort are Rick Seibert and Jill Kostel. TWI has modeled how precisely placed wetlands can reduce nutrient runoff and found that wetlands are much more effective than other practices in addressing water quality issues. Seibert and Kostel will be sharing this information with landowners who could install a wetland on their property to achieve significant nutrient reduction.

The small “working wetlands” would be placed along existing drainage ways and are designed to naturally remove excess nutrients while taking a minimum amount of farmland out of production. The constructed wetland practice has been successfully used in Iowa, and TWI is now pursuing it in Illinois as a cost-effective solution to nutrient pollution.

Once farmers have signed on to implement a wetland, TWI will help them access federal financial and technical assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

“Our research has found that there’s great potential for water quality trading in the Big Bureau Creek Watershed, but that landowners first want to see evidence on the ground that the wetlands work,” said Kostel, TWI’s senior environmental engineer. “Installing a few ‘demonstration wetlands’ will let the farmers kick the tires, so to speak. This is an important step toward demonstrating a market in this watershed that could be replicated to reduce nutrient pollution throughout the Midwest.”