TWI projects featured at Illinois Water Conference

Water is at the heart of what we do as an organization; “wet” is even in our name! So naturally, the Wetlands Initiative had a strong showing at the biennial Illinois Water Conference in Champaign this fall. On October 27, TWI’s farm-based wetlands project in north-central Illinois and our new restoration work in Chicago’s Calumet region were featured in back-to-back conference sessions. 

The Illinois Water Conference focuses on the latest research on issues that impact Illinois’ water systems and resources. Hosted by the Illinois Water Resources Center and held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it’s attended by researchers, agency personnel, students, and nonprofit representatives from across the state.

TWI project partner Mahsa Izadmehr (right) talks with a session attendee at the Illinois Water Conference on October 27 after her presentation on water quality monitoring of TWI’s first farm-based wetland.

Kicking off the morning, TWI’s project partner the University of Illinois at Chicago presented as part of a session on measuring and mapping nutrient pollution in rivers and streams. Mahsa Izadmehr, a graduate research assistant working with UIC environmental engineering professor Dr. Karl Rockne, reported on their initial results in monitoring the nutrient removal performed by TWI’s first constructed wetland in Bureau County, Illinois.

The wetland was built in August 2015 on a farmer’s property during a construction expo that was open to the public. In partnership with TWI, Izadmehr and Dr. Rockne have been collecting water quality data during 2016 from autosamplers installed at the inlet and outlet of the wetland to evaluate its effectiveness at removing excess nutrients from the drain tile that carries water off the farm.

A graph from project partner UIC’s presentation at the 2016 Illinois Water Conference shows the amount of nitrogen (NO3-N) and phosphorus (SRP) removed over time by the first farm-based wetland under TWI’s “Growing Wetlands for Clean Water” project. 

They have calculated that the wetland is already performing significant nitrogen and phosphorus removal, but the removal rates are not as high as expected. Izadmehr noted the wetland vegetation is still developing and there may not yet be enough organic matter content in the soil, among other possible explanations. “We will continue to monitor the water quality changes as the wetland matures,” said Izadmehr. She went on to field several questions from the very engaged audience.

TWI’s senior ecologist, Dr. Gary Sullivan, moderated and presented at a session immediately following on Calumet wetland restoration. Sullivan spoke on his work with a partnership known as the Calumet Wetland Working Group that is assessing remnant wetland sites in the Calumet for potential to restore valuable hemi-marsh habitat for wetland-dependent birds.

TWI Senior Ecologist Dr. Gary Sullivan presents during a conference session on hemi-marsh restoration in Chicago’s Calumet region. 

“All 20 remnant sites have huge invasive species problems, and they’ve been cut off from their natural hydrology,” he explained. “There are a number of challenges to restoration, but there are strategies we can use to manage the water levels and bring back functional hemi-marsh at many of these sites.” 

Fellow presenters at the Calumet session were Nat Miller of Audubon Great Lakes and Dr. Nicole Michel of the National Audubon Society. Audubon Great Lakes is leading the partnership conducting the assessment, and they’re working with TWI to restore hemi-marsh at Indian Ridge Marsh, a site that was prioritized early on in the assessment process.

Dr. Michel reviewed the modeling work she has done on populations of declining wetland birds like the Common Gallinule and Least Bittern and their use of hemi-marsh habitats. Miller discussed how Calumet hemi-marsh restoration—like the work TWI and Audubon are doing at Indian Ridge Marsh—could reverse the dramatic declines in wetland bird numbers in the Calumet observed over the past two decades.

TWI has big plans in 2017 for both our partnership work in the Calumet region, which will be expanding to assess more remnant wetland sites on the Indiana side of the border, and for the farm-based wetlands project, which will be branching out into additional Illinois watersheds for more on-farm wetlands. When the Illinois Water Conference returns in 2018, TWI should have exciting progress on both fronts to share with our peers!

Learn more about TWI’s farm-based wetlands project

Learn more about TWI’s work in the Calumet region