Success Story - Restoring Wetlands -20 Years and Counting
Illinois Success Story
Restoring Wetlands -20 Years and Counting
By: Jody Christiansen
Date: October 2012
Working wetland next to farmland
filtering field water run-off.
Along the Mississippi River in southern Illinois, are diverse landscapes of
woodlands, open wild areas and farmland. However, that wasn’t the case just 20
years ago. Back then, much of the land was cropland for corn, soybeans, and
wheat. The area generally experiences frequent flooding, but nothing like the
Great Flood of 1993, which ravaged the area. That was when the USDA Natural
Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offered landowners access to an easement
program that does two things: helps landowners who lose crops to floods year
after year and restores the area back to a fully functional wetland.
That easement program was the Emergency Wetlands Reserve Program (EWRP).
After all was said and done, there were seven easements enrolled covering a
total area of 3,089 acres in Alexander County. This compilation of easements
forms a “contiguous piece of Mississippi River floodplain,” said Dave Hiatt, NRCS Biologist. “Each easement connects a larger area that gives migrating birds
a place to rest and feed before traveling on. Located at the top of the
Mississippi Alluvial Valley, this locale is now a major migration staging area.”
After floodwaters receded in 1993, “these areas looked like a moon scape,” said
Danette Cross, NRCS District Conservationist in Alexander and Pulaski Counties.
Cross was an NRCS technician when flood recovery efforts began. “It’s been great
to work on these wetland restoration sites from the beginning,” Cross continued.
Map locates acres enrolled in
EWRP in 1993, outlined in red.
The same location took another big hit in 2011. According to Cross, “That
flood was almost worse than 1993” because this area sits in what local residents
call the ‘bathtub’ located between the Ohio and Mississippi River confluence.
“Both rivers crested at the same time and the area remained flooded for months,”
Research, Restoration & Recreation
Once a landowner places their land in a conservation easement, their options
are to sell the land, lease it for recreational purposes such as hunting, or
just enjoy the new surroundings. In this case, the Forest Service purchased
3,000 acres of the original easements. Illinois Department of Natural Resources
(IDNR) purchased a smaller portion. The Forest Service manages the land for
wildlife, game and non-game species. Residents and visitors can enjoy the
recovering wetland and watch the return of flowers, fish, birds, mammals and
everything else supported by a healthy wetland ecosystem.
Chad Deaton, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist with Forest Service, was adamant
about restoring these wetlands because they enhance the Shawnee National Forest.
“These areas are a high priority to re-establish,” said Deaton. “The Mississippi
floodplain has been manipulated over the years to where its function has been
We often think of wetlands only storing water after heavy rains and
preventing floods. But did you know wetlands are also valuable during dry times?
This year, southern Illinois experienced record drought conditions. Yet, wetland
areas continually support wildlife and plants species, even with low or no
Chad Deaton looks over a young tree
planted in 2003.
The Colyer’s tract was put into a conservation easement in 2003. This 233-acre
wetland supports newly planted oak and cypress trees. The rolling terrain
invites a variety of plants and habitats where wildlife can flourish. NRCS
installed two water control structures on the site and built a small levee that
controls timing and release of water.
Danette Cross (NRCS), Chad Deaton (USFS), and Nick
Zaczek (SIU graduate student)
check the water control structure for beaver activity.
“We primarily mow vegetation and maintain the levees,” said Deaton. “Of
course we check to make sure the beavers don’t plug the control structures too.”
The area is open to the public but Deaton confirms that mostly hunters and
birdwatchers use the site. Because Colyer’s tract is located further away from
the river, soils there are different. The wetland can support more diverse plant
and animal life due to variations in elevation and the seasonal water table.
“This is a working wetland,” adds Deaton. “There is a cropped field along one
edge and water running off the field is filtered through the wetland.” Some
young oak trees show healthy acorn development and native plants are blooming.
A Southern Illinois University Graduate Student, Nick Zaczek helped Deaton for
the past three summers. He has seen wildlife improvements there firsthand. While
walking on trails he spotted a baby rat snake hiding under some plant growth and
later encountered a turtle.
Wildlife isn’t the only beneficiary of these 20-year old wetlands. They offer
research opportunities. The Middle Mississippi River Wetland Field Station, made
up of 1,380 acres of EWRP easements, is a research area owned by the State of
Illinois and managed by Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. The station
is located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Alexander County and serves
as a research, education, and demonstration area.
Nick Zaczek finds a turtle in the
Colyer easement after finding the rat snake.
Looking Back and Forward
For landowners who decided to enroll their land into easements, there are no
regrets. Current landowner Ron Farris, whose father originally enrolled the
land, would like to add even more acres into the easement, if possible. The
force of water from the 1993 flood created a lake on Farris' property that is
approximately 60-feet deep when full. More site damage resulted when a road blew
out and a home washed completely away. The land was covered with several feet of
sand that would require multiple and costly truckloads to remove. “Right now I
have 100 acres of trees, a 50-acre lake, 50 acres of sand and 50 acres I crop,”
stated Farris. “I’d like to enroll those acres of cropland if the opportunity
Ron Farris, landowner, and Danette Cross
review his conservation plan.
Driving to another easement site in an area of the county where he grew up,
Farris recalled, “I remember when this was all trees.” “Back in the 60’s is when
all the trees were cut down and this was turned into cropland.” Farris said that
since the flood, the ground is unable to support good crops so restoring is the
best option. Cross confirms the devastation to cropland in the area. She agrees
that returning the ground back to natural wooded areas and wetlands is best for
some of the more damaged areas. She currently works with the Corps of Engineers
to stabilize old levees along several easement sites.
Flood of 1993 created this 60-foot
deep lake in the Farris’ cropland.
Partnerships between NRCS, Forest Service and IDNR have been positive. Other
partners, such as the American Land Conservancy and the Middle Mississippi River
Partnership, as well as countless landowners have helped bring value back to
both floodplains and wetlands. During this same timeframe, additional easements
through the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) in Alexander County have purchased
another 2,367 acres. Union and Jackson counties also enrolled several easements
equaling thousands of acres in EWRP and WRP.
Deaton and Cross praise all partners and landowners for their help in working
together to purchase and re-establish a unique area that supports such
diversified plant, wildlife and aquatic life--not to mention opening up areas
for migrating water birds. Hiatt compares these wetlands to a beautiful “string
of pearls along the Mississippi.” Pearls that give wetlands the opportunity to
do what they do best, be the cleanser of water and home for native flora and
fauna that we can all enjoy for years.
Egrets visit a shallow wetland located on farmland
in Alexander County.
Restoring Wetlands - 20 Years and Counting (PDF, 3,542kb)