Livingston County's first constructed wetland built during expo

The Wetlands Initiative recently built our third and largest constructed wetland to date on farmland in east-central Illinois. This past August, TWI held a Construction and Conservation Expo at Fulton Farms in the town of Cullom, Illinois. The purpose of this event—part of TWI’s Growing Wetlands for Clean Water project—was to showcase the installation and capabilities of a TWI-designed wetland to local farmers. As the first-ever TWI-constructed wetland in Livingston County, it will help reduce nitrogen and phosphorous entering the Vermilion Headwaters Watershed.

A panoramic view of the just-completed constructed wetland at Fulton Farms. Photo by Jill Kostel/TWI.

Over the course of one week, hardworking volunteers from the Illinois Land Improvement Contractors of America (ILICA) used earth-moving equipment loaned by ILICA members to construct a 1.1-acre wetland on 4.6 acres of farmland. The finished product is engineered to drain 80 acres of tiled agricultural land, equivalent to about 60 football fields. The remaining 3.5 acres of land surrounding the wetland will serve as a buffer area and eventually be seeded with native plant species, generating additional benefits such as habitat for wildlife and pollinators like the declining monarch butterfly.

The expo also featured two Conservation Days hosted by the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership (ISAP), during which farmers could learn from experts—including TWI Senior Environmental Engineer Dr. Jill Kostel—about reducing nutrient losses through the adoption of various conservation drainage practices. Topics included saturated buffers, bioreactors, drainage water management, USDA programs, cover crops, and of course, constructed wetlands. Many thanks to American Farmland Trust, Ecosystem Services Exchange, Illinois Soybean Association, Livingston County Soil & Water Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Health Partnership, Springfield Plastics Inc., UIUC Drainage Research and Outreach Program, and the Vermilion Headwaters Watershed Group for their help with the Conservation Days.  

As of early October, the vegetation to prevent soil erosion along the berms and a cover crop planted in the buffer area had taken root in the wetland. TWI plans to seed a range of native wetland and prairie plant species this January. Expect us to share new pictures from the site in spring 2019, so you can see how it is progressing!

Over lunch on the Conservation Days, Livingston County Soil & Water Conservation District (LCSWCD) Resource Conservationist Becky Taylor spoke to local farmers about the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy. She explained how the Vermilion Headwaters Watershed is one of the top five watersheds contributing the most to nutrient runoff. Through the voluntary adoption of conservation drainage practices like constructed wetlands on farmland, the watershed can improve the quality of water running into local streams and rivers and then heading downstream.

When it comes to conservation drainage practices, constructed wetlands are considered one of the most cost-effective for reducing nutrient runoff. As NRCS District Conservationist Adam Wyant put it, “Constructed wetlands are the Cadillac of water management.” They can remain effective for 30 years or more with minimal maintenance and can generate additional benefits such as wildlife habitat.

Constructed wetlands are carefully engineered systems designed to capture tile drainage and naturally remove nitrates from agricultural runoff, a major contributor to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. TWI is partnering with the agricultural sector to conduct farmer outreach and provide free technical assistance for landowners to try the conservation practice in north-central Illinois.

Lunchtime with Jim Isermann from Soil Health Partnership during one of the Conservation Days. Photo by Jean McGuire/TWI.

In a couple years, Becky wants to use the Fulton Farms constructed wetland as “a tour stop to show farmers a practice you can be doing” and she hopes her district becomes “an example to look to in the state.”

Rounding out the lunchtime speakers, attendees heard from American Farmland Trust’s (AFT) Midwest Conservation and Stewardship Program Manager Emily Bruner about the technical assistance AFT can provide in helping farmers adopt conservation practices. AFT is collaborating with local partners like TWI and LCSWCD to help stem the loss of nitrogen from farmlands in the Vermilion Headwaters Watershed.

TWI Senior Environmental Engineer Dr. Jill Kostel (in orange cap) speaks with LCSWCD Resource Conservationist Becky Taylor, NRCS District Conservationist Adam Wyant, and a local farmer (from left to right). Photo by Jean McGuire/TWI.

Attendees were treated to site tours by Jim Fulton, the farm owner and operator—and TWI’s partner on the project. Jim’s family has a long tradition of farming in Livingston County. The Fultons purchased their first tract of farmland in 1893 and have been farming ever since. His family has owned the property with the constructed wetland for twenty-five years.

Jim first heard about the constructed wetland opportunity while serving on the conservation district’s watershed steering committee, thanks to TWI Field Outreach Specialist Jean McGuire’s efforts in the county. Then, about a year ago, Jim met with Jill and Jean to discuss costs and benefits of constructed wetlands. Besides the fact that TWI could install the wetland with no cost to him, the idea of increasing wildlife habitat on the farm appealed to Jim and his family.

Three generations of Fultons next to their new constructed wetland. Photo by Daniel Fulton.

During construction of the wetland, Jim was impressed with the speed at which ILICA volunteers moved soil. “Four days ago this was an uneven weed patch. These folks know what they’re doing,” Jim said. He also expressed his appreciation for how TWI managed the project from start to finish: “There were no issues, they took care of everything.”

Now, Jim and his family look forward to “just coming out and watching the birds and the butterflies.” He has plans to build a seating area so three generations of Fultons—he and his wife, Ruthanne, plus their son, daughter, and grandchildren—can enjoy the peaceful view.