New farm partnerships cropping up to spread nutrient-removal wetlands

With this summer’s Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” officially declared its largest ever, solutions to nutrient runoff are urgently needed in the Midwest. The Wetlands Initiative has been advancing the use of one such solution in the form of small constructed wetlands on farms designed to naturally remove the excess nutrients leaving through tile drainage. The first two farm-based wetlands have been built on properties in Bureau County, Illinois, and TWI is building new partnerships to get the word out on these wetlands’ ability to improve water quality.

A new initiative taking root at Illinois Central College in East Peoria is one example. The Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership (ISAP)—a collaborative that includes the Illinois Corn Growers Association, American Farmland Trust, the Soil Health Partnership, and others—is expanding a demonstration farm on the ICC campus to spotlight a range of on-farm conservation practices, including constructed wetlands. TWI is designing a wetland for the site and is in the process of joining the broader partnership.

Dr. Jill Kostel (right), TWI’s senior environmental engineer, helps NRCS Geologist Diane Lamb take soil borings at the future site of the constructed wetland at Illinois Central College. Photo by Pete Fandel/ICC.

“The ICC farm will focus on hands-on demonstration of sustainable ag practices, and the wetland will be part of training programs for Certified Crop Advisers, soil health specialists, and students pursuing agriculture-related careers,” said Dr. Jill Kostel, TWI’s senior environmental engineer and manager of the farm-based wetlands project. “We feel having a constructed wetland as part of this farm will really help make this practice visible to more farm-sector leaders and raise awareness of its ability to treat tile drainage.”

The ICC farm began in the late 1970s with years of research on the effectiveness of in-field practices like cover crops and nutrient management. Now, through the ISAP partnership, it will feature a bioreactor, a drainage water management field, and the TWI-designed constructed wetland, as well as a new “sustainability center” building, all on 50 compact acres.

The wetland will be highly visible in a literal sense, too. It will be sited near the new Sustainability Education Center and alongside a cross-country track and a road leading to campus. “A lot of people will have to drive right past the wetland to access or leave campus,” said Dr. Kostel. “We might need a sign saying ‘nature in progress’ for the first couple years as the vegetation fills in, but we’re working with the partners on a wetland design that will be both beautiful within an urban campus and effective at removing nutrients.”

A map of the Illinois Central College demonstration farm showing the future site of the constructed wetland and other conservation practices. Illustration by Caroline Wade/TNC.

Pete Fandel, a professor of agriculture at ICC, first did work at the demonstration farm as a student and now has led management of the site for the past seven years. As a farmer himself and former crop specialist with the University of Illinois Extension for nearly two decades, Fandel knows the importance of hands-on demonstration paired with good data to show farmers that practices are effective.

“With the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy and the Gulf hypoxia issues, more and more farmers are looking for ways they can contribute to reducing nutrient losses. But they want solid numbers behind it if they’re going to expend the money to build a conservation practice like a bioreactor or wetland,” Fandel said. “It works out well for a public entity like us to try it first, study it. We can have field days and farmers can come check out how everything looks and how it works.”

He’s also enthusiastic about being able to readily disseminate research on the new practices, including constructed wetlands, through ISAP.

“We have the great ability with the demonstration farm to expose students to hands-on research on how these different practices tie to the environment, as well as how they affect agriculture,” said Fandel. “Why not disseminate it to everybody else too, with this broader partnership? Everyone benefits from a project like this in my mind—students, farmers, and the community at large.”

TWI hopes to build the ICC wetland by the end of 2017. Once it’s implemented, the Illinois Corn Growers Association—a partner in TWI’s larger farm-based wetlands project—will conduct water quality monitoring to measure its nutrient removal. Meanwhile, Dr. Kostel will continue exploring other partnerships that can help raise awareness of constructed wetlands and their effectiveness at removing nutrients, and TWI’s new field outreach specialist, Jean McGuire, will be hard at work recruiting new farmer prospects to build a constructed wetland of their own.