First farm-based wetland built during ‘ground-breaking’ Conservation Expo

August has been an exciting and ground-breaking month for the Wetlands Initiative—literally! During the week of August 3, 2015, the Wetlands Initiative's senior environmental engineer, Jill Kostel, coordinated construction of the first farm-based wetland designed for nutrient removal in the Big Bureau Creek Watershed in north-central Illinois.

The small wetland was built at Thacker Farms in Bureau County during a three-day Conservation Expo, co-organized by TWI and the Illinois Land Improvement Contractors Association (ILICA). Nearly 100 people from 13 counties participated in the expo, learning about various conservation practices and observing the wetland's construction firsthand.

Watch the time-lapse video of the wetland’s construction here.

Construction taking place to create the wetland courtesy of ILICA (www.illica.net)

This first demonstration of the constructed wetland practice comes at a very opportune time. Between Toledo's drinking-water contamination last summer and the lawsuit recently filed against Iowa drainage districts, the issue of nutrient runoff is garnering more and more attention in the national news. Earlier this month, scientists reported that the “dead zone” caused by nutrient runoff into the Gulf of Mexico is above average in size. And in late July, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency released its Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy for Illinois, with goals to reduce and remove nitrogen and phosphorus to improve local water quality as well as quality downstream.

“There’s a huge amount of attention and interest right now in finding workable solutions to nutrient runoff that won’t put farmers out of business,” said Kostel. “After all, nutrient runoff is basically a side effect of great success in agricultural production. Constructed wetlands like the one we built this week are a practical, cost-effective way of dealing with that side effect while taking very little land out of production.”

These “in-line wetlands” are strategically sited to capture and naturally remove excess nutrients from tile drainage systems before they enter streams and other waterways. Constructed wetlands are a cost-share practice that is available under the federal Farm Bill, but it has been used very little in Illinois.

Jill Kostel, the project manager, talks with expo attendees about constructed wetlands at one of the tour stops.

To raise awareness of the wetland practice and other conservation practices suited for nutrient removal, the Conservation Expo was held at Thacker Farms on August 4–6, 2015. The expo was host to many organizations that demonstrated land improvement and conservation practices with the aim to remove nutrients in a natural and efficient manner. Guests of the expo were able to tour the farm via a tractor ride from Dixon Waterfowl Refuge site supervisor, Rick Seibert, which had seven hands-on pitstops along the way: soils demonstration, filter strips, cover crops, grassed waterways, drainage, constructed wetland, and water quality/monitoring. Each station was a chance for attendees to gain more familiarity with the practices and learn how they could start these projects on their own properties.

The event was also an opportunity to showcase the construction and machinery that goes into installing a wetland. Thanks to the leadership of David Kennedy, Show Committee Co-Chairman of ILICA, and the work of ILICA member contractors, this project was able to be completed in record time.

“We as an association are eager to be part of projects such as this to highlight the skills of our members as well as to promote different practices,” Kennedy said. “ILICA is committed to quality workmanship and conservation of natural resources as well as improving water quality. It is important that we stay abreast of new practices that will help with our goals.”

Expo Speakers from L to R: Richard Breckenridge, Jean Payne, Caroline Wade, and Jill Kostel

The expo also hosted several speakers who were able to provide context to the projects on display around the farm. Each day the lunchtime topics highlighted a different conservation practice taking place at the expo. On August 4, Doug Gass of Pheasants Forever discussed habitat for upland birds, pollinators, and wildlife food plots. On August 5, Caroline Wade of the Illinois Corn Growers Association and the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices spoke about water quality monitoring. On August 6, Dick Breckenridge of the Illinois EPA and Jean Payne of the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council and the Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association spoke at large about these conservation practices as efforts to mobilize the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy statewide.

Participants provided feedback through surveys so that TWI can improve future expos and field days. Of the audience members surveyed, 92% felt that their participation in the event increased their knowledge and awareness of conservation practices. Additionally, 88% felt that their participation increased their knowledge and awareness of the effectiveness of constructed wetlands for nutrient removal.

With the first wetland now installed, TWI is partnering with Karl Rockne, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), to conduct on-site water quality monitoring. Two autosamplers will be placed at the inflow and outflow of the wetland to measure nitrogen and phosphorus levels. Water quality monitoring will occur through fall 2015 to establish baseline flow conditions, then removed prior to freeze. The autosamplers will be reinstalled after spring thaw and will be monitoring quality throughout the growing season.

“Monitoring is particularly important at this first wetland site to demonstrate its effectiveness at removing nutrients,” said Kostel. “Our past outreach in the watershed has taught us that farmers want to see that the practice works first-hand, and that it can work in their own area, before they are willing to implement it themselves. And by taking samples at inflow and outflow, we can directly show the nutrient reduction it's achieving, unlike with other conservation practices.”

Moving forward, TWI’s goal is to partner with additional farmers to install more on-farm wetlands over 2015 and 2016, while continuing outreach and education about constructed wetlands for nutrient removal. With six other farmers lined up to have a wetland design prepared for their property, project manager Jill Kostel aims to help design and implement constructed wetlands in a variety of farm settings.

“I’d like to show it’s not a cookie-cutter practice,” said Kostel. “With these first few wetland sites, we want to provide farmers with different examples so they can see how the wetlands can be adapted to work in their own operation. No one in this area has seen this practice before.”

TWI also is initiating a partnership with the Illinois Corn Growers Association, a key ag-sector partner that will assist in spreading the word with farmers about the wetland practice. Additional field days will take place at new and established constructed wetland sites to raise awareness among farmers and landowners about this nutrient removal method, building on the momentum from the crucial installation of this first wetland.

Funding for this project has been generously provided by the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council; the University of Illinois at Chicago; The Siragusa Foundation; Patagonia Chicago Magnificent Mile; Drive Current, Inc.; and the Winnetka Garden Club.