Constructing partnerships for clean water

This past summer, 12 organizations came together in the name of water quality during construction of the second farm-based wetland in Bureau County, Illinois. As part of the Wetlands Initiative’s “Growing Wetlands for Clean Water” project, the Illinois chapter of the Land Improvement Contractors of America (ILICA) built the 4.8-acre wetland designed for nutrient removal on Bonucci Farms between August 29 and September 1.

A four-day Construction and Conservation Expo open to the public highlighted installation of the wetland and also included a special Conservation Day showcasing a variety of sustainable farming practices. The day included speakers on topics ranging from constructed wetlands to cover crops to pollinator habitat. TWI is thankful to all the groups that came together to make the Conservation Day a success despite the rainy weather.

With nutrient pollution continuing to make headlines, farmers and the agricultural sector as a whole are looking for feasible solutions to this environmental issue. One solution is constructed wetlands—a natural fit for TWI’s mission. These precisely located wetlands are designed to improve water quality by intercepting nutrient-laden water running off of farm fields and allowing the physical, biological, and chemical processes of the wetland to treat the water before it heads downstream. Constructed wetlands are one of the key conservation practices in Illinois’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy; they are designed to have a major impact while taking only a minor amount of farmland out of production.

“This project is different from what TWI usually does, which is large-scale habitat restoration to increase biodiversity. Here we’re going about conservation in a nontraditional way as we work directly with the agricultural community to improve water quality through small constructed wetlands,” said TWI Senior Environmental Engineer Dr. Jill Kostel, who’s leading the project. “In terms of our portfolio of work, this is high risk and high reward.”

From left to right: TWI Senior Environmental Engineer Dr. Jill Kostel, ILICA contractor Wes Litwiller, and soil scientist Steve Zwicker during wetland construction on Bonucci Farms.

The nontraditional nature of the project is why events like the Conservation Day are so critical. Constructed wetlands have been used very little in Illinois and many landowners are unfamiliar with the practice. Farmers and other visitors that day were able to see the wetland installed in real time and learn more about nutrient removal and water quality from experts. While not every farmer will incorporate a wetland into their landscape, there are other practices they learned about during the Conservation Day that they can use as part of a successful farm operation.

While focused on constructed wetlands, the Conservation Day at Bonucci Farms included stations where people could learn about a variety of farm-based conservation practices. Guest speaker Jannifer Powelson from the Stark County Soil & Water Conservation District discussed how landowners can create pollinator habitat; Erika Turner of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) talked about conservation-focused USDA programs for which farmers are eligible; and representatives from the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices presented on cover crops. A rainfall simulator unit provided a visual demonstration of how stormwater moves over soil, and landowners were encouraged to bring water samples from tile drainage on their farms to be tested for quality.

ILICA contractors at Bonucci Farms install the outlet pipe and water-control structure that will maintain water levels in the constructed wetland.

Compared to other farm-based conservation practices, constructed wetlands can seem more daunting to undertake, so it has been important for TWI to partner with organizations that are trusted by the farm community and understand their concerns. Two years ago TWI began collaborating with the Illinois Corn Growers Association (ICGA) to help spread the wetland practice. Together TWI and ICGA have been reaching out to farmers to explain the significant nutrient-reduction benefits of constructed wetlands, as well as how little farmland is needed for one.

Explained Caroline Wade, ICGA's Nutrient Watershed Manager, “When it comes to more advanced practices like a constructed wetland, we really find that farmers who are already motivated to address water quality issues are much more receptive to hearing more. In trying to bring other farmers into the discussion, we’ve found that farmer-to-farmer interactions are far more effective than any specific communication item ICGA could distribute."

Also important has been to explain that constructed wetlands are eligible for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), both of which are part of the USDA Farm Bill. This financial incentive—plus the little maintenance required for a constructed wetland after installation—has helped spike interest in the practice, and TWI is currently working on designs for more farmers in north-central Illinois.

The success of the ICGA collaboration has led TWI to similar ones with the Illinois Soybean Association and American Farmland Trust to provide technical assistance to even more farmers who are interested in installing a wetland. Wade said, “We see that collaborative efforts between farm groups and conservation groups will become increasingly important over time as we identify common goals across water quality, soil health, sustainability, and climate mitigation efforts. Nobody expects that social, political, regulatory, or community interests in these issues will decline over time, but resources to implement programs might. That’s why finding areas of common goals and opportunities to share resources is so valuable.”