Getting technical: TWI staff at national restoration conference

Several members of TWI's technical staff got a chance to share their work with peers at the fifth National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration (NCER), held in Schaumburg, Illinois, from July 29 to August 2.

A week-long interdisciplinary conference on large-scale ecosystem restoration, NCER provides a forum for sharing the latest science, engineering, planning, and policy developments in the field. In short, it's an opportunity for restoration experts to get geeky.

Jill Kostel, TWI's senior environmental engineer, was one of four presenters for the session Hydrodynamic & Water Quality Modeling. Her paper, "Increasing Conservation Practice Enrollment: Modeling and Targeted Outreach in an Agricultural Watershed," originated from TWI's Big Bureau Creek Watershed project—an effort to show how small, precisely placed wetlands on farms can reduce nutrient pollution in agricultural runoff. This nutrient pollution ultimately flows down the Mississippi River and fuels the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.

With her co-authors Jeff Boeckler of Northwater Consulting and Mark Tomer of the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, Jill has been using geospatial tools to identify the best locations in the Big Bureau Creek Watershed for farm-based conservation practices, particularly "in-line" wetlands, in order to maximize their effectiveness. Combining advanced computer technology with the best topographic data available (including elevation, slope, and surface water flow paths) and the specific wetland design criteria, the team has pinpointed a number of prime candidate sites, and TWI is focusing its one-on-one outreach to landowners based on these modeling results.

Later that week at NCER, Jill moderated the Wetland/Marsh Restoration session, while Gary Sullivan and Iza Redlinski, both restoration ecologists at TWI, presented their research on plant species dispersal at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at the conference poster session; this research was done in collaboration with Bill Sluis of Trine University.

As their presentation described, restoring high levels of plant biodiversity in landscape restoration work is critical to reestablishing many important ecological functions. In large restorations, however, this can present a significant challenge because seed acquisition is often limited by either financial resources or availability, or both, especially for rare species or those producing little seed. To address this challenge in the prairie areas of the Dixon Refuge in north-central Illinois, TWI planted 60 "nodes of diversity" to serve as bases for species establishment and, hopefully, natural dispersal to other areas of the restoration site.

After 10 growing seasons, TWI assessed each node for species establishment and abundance, with additional assessments of consecutive rings outside each node at five-meter increments to determine if dispersal from nodes is a viable means of increasing diversity across the site.

It turned out that dispersal from the nodes was limited, although establishment of plant species within the nodes was so successful that TWI has been able to use the nodes as a focus for collection of seed that can then be planted elsewhere across the Refuge. (Click here to read the full poster presentation on this ten-year experiment.)