When excess rain caused flooding issues on Tom Dykstra's Wetland Reserve Easement, experts from NRCS provided technical and financial assistance to address the issue, give him more control over the water and transform the site.
By Brandon O'Connor, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA-NRCS, Indianapolis
Standing on a high bluff overlooking the 15-acre pond that serves as the centerpiece of his 110-acre wetland property, Tom Dykstra can’t help but think back to the first time he took in the view.
He had watched the for-sale listing for the property, located in Steuben County, Indiana, for more than a year before he finally decided to reach out and visit. He toured through the property with the owner before pausing to take in the view from the bluff for the first time.
As the sun sets behind the western horizon, the bluff provides a sweeping vista of the entire property, and the landscape transforms with a swath of colors more often captured in paintings than in person.
After taking in the view for the first time, Dykstra decided he “needed to make this work,” and in December 2015 he purchased the 120-acre property that includes 110 acres of wetlands and a 10-acre homestead site.
The wetland portion of the property was historically managed as a row crop field but was turned into a permanent wetland easement and restored back to its natural state with assistance from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2010.
Through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program’s Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) component, NRCS purchased the permanent easement rights to the property. Under WRE, NRCS pays 75-100% of the restoration costs to return the property to its natural state while the landowner retains ownership of the land and use of it for recreational purposes. As part of the agreement, the landowner must manage and maintain the property according to guidelines set by NRCS.
Dykstra’s property was enrolled in WRE watershed by the previous owner as part of an initiative in the Fish Creek to create habitat for the endangered copper belly water snake. Experts from NRCS worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the property including the creation of the main 15-acre pond, multiple other smaller ponds and seasonally wet areas that provide attractive habitat for the copper belly water snakes. They also created multiple tree plantings throughout the property. The initial restoration work was completed in 2011.
By the time Dykstra purchased the property in 2015 the transformation had blossomed, and a wide variety of wildlife called the former cropland home including deer, blue herons and migratory ducks. The site was not without issues though. Wetlands are designed to hold water, but on parts of the property controlling the water and keeping it from getting too high had become a problem.
“Very quickly (realized I had a water control problem),” Dykstra said. “I would say that was probably the one thing that concerned me even when I looked to buy it, because I met with the neighbors and already there were flooding issues or problems with water control in the front of the farm.”
The area beyond the far western bank of the main pond was impassible during periods of high water and one of the smaller ponds had the tendency to flood onto the neighbor’s property. Throughout the springs of 2018 and 2019 those challenges turned from manageable issues to potential disasters as above average rainfalls caused the level of water throughout the property to rise dramatically.
According to data from the National Weather Service, the area near Dykstra’s property received 15.6 inches of rain between May and June 2018, nearly double the annual average in the area for those two months of 8.53 inches, as measure between 1991 and 2020. The heavy rains returned again in spring 2019 with 17.27 inches falling from May through July, while the average for that period is 12.46 inches.
The back-to-back above average spring rainfall totals caused the water that used to creep onto the edges of neighbor’s property to rise high enough to threaten their house and the adjacent church. On other parts of the property the water rose high enough to disrupt habitat for the blue herons and the woods planted as part of the initial restoration started to suffer.
“You couldn't even drive (in many areas) it was so flooded,” Dykstra said. “I had no accessibility to the west side of the farm when the water was high.”
As the water rose and caused issues both on the easement and off, Art Franke, the Indiana NRCS district conservationist for Steuben County, received calls from both Dykstra and his neighbor looking for solutions.
“There was a really wet week, in probably the spring of 2019, and it just rained every day,” Franke said. “I came out and looked at it and the fence posts along that property were underwater, basically.”
Franke immediately reached out to Bill Lambert, the northeast area easement specialist who coordinated the original restoration team for the wetland, and Andrew Pursifull, the northeast area engineer, and worked with them to devise a plan to address the flooding issues.
The first step was to secure funding for the project, which was accomplished through WRE stewardship funding from NRCS. That funding source enabled NRCS to pay for 100% of the remediation costs to address the cause of the flooding on the neighbor’s property. Dykstra was then able to work with Scott Fetters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to fund a portion of the project to address flooding related to the 15-acre pond with the remainder of the funding coming from private grants and organizations such as Ducks Unlimited.
Pursifull then began working on a design that would allow water to drain from the small pond, which was impacting the neighbor, through a water level control system and into the main pond. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife project included building another water level control system and a levee on the western bank of the main pond that enables Dykstra to control the water level and drain excess water into a county tile that runs off the property.
“There was no chance I would ever have the means to be able to do it or the engineering possibilities,” Dykstra said. “What you're seeing today could not have happened without what NRCS has done and they just made it easy.”
Pursifull said the first part of the plan was to decide where to take the excess water. They considered multiple options including running it directly off the property into a county ditch, but ultimately, they decided to drain it into the main pond on the easement instead. The decision was made, in part, because it kept the entire project on the easement allowing WRE stewardship funding to cover the full cost and it allowed for greater control by Dykstra or a future landowner.
Pursifull then designed a modified blind inlet to install on the small pond which would allow water to drain into a water level control system while remaining beaver proof. The blind inlet consisted of leach field pipes, which are PVC pipes with holes in them typically used as part of a septic system, to be buried in the bank under rocks. The rocks where then covered with geotextile fabric to keep debris and sediment from plugging the system while simultaneously allowing water to drain through the fabric and rocks into the pipes and out through the water level control system.
The water level control system is a box buried in the ground with an inlet pipe from the pond on one side and an outlet pipe that runs into a 700-foot tile leading to the main pond on the other. Inside the box, Dykstra can adjust boards to either raise or lower the level of water in the controlled pond as necessary.
A similar structure with a beaver proof drain was installed along with a levee at the western bank of the main pond which enables Dykstra to control the overall water level on the property by draining excess water into a county tile. Dykstra said he typically adjusts the level three times a year, with each adjustment serving a wildlife purpose unless further modifications are needed due to heavy rainfall.
“I would do it in the spring to bring the water up for the migratory birds, then I drop it after that,” he said.
“The deer love the grasses along the edge, the herons and the feeding birds and the ducks like that.”
Pursifull’ s blind inlet design was installed in spring of 2020 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife funded project was installed immediately after, giving Dykstra full control of the water levels and simultaneously addressing the flooding problems both on and off the property.
“It's so beautiful now,” Dykstra said.
Since the systems were installed there has been no additional flooding on the neighbor’s property, Dykstra said, and he has also seen his own property rebound. The blue herons have returned now that the area isn’t under water, the number of fawns has increased, and a diversity of plants has grown between the forest line and the wetland ponds since the flood water retreated.
Dykstra has also worked with NRCS to enroll the property in a three-year program using WRE stewardship funding to hopefully eradicate the invasive autumn olive that is crowding out young forests throughout the property. With the flood waters controlled and invasive species control underway, the property is truly becoming the place Dykstra envisioned when he first stood on the bluff and looked out across it.
“I am so impressed by how the multiple governmental agencies worked together,” Dykstra said. “This place is exploding with native plants and wildlife now that the water is controlled. It will be even better once the invasive plant species such as autumn olive are under control.
I feel so blessed to be a small part of an amazing collaboration of governmental agencies. I am even more fortunate to work with the special people behind these agencies. It is only together that we have brought this property to what I had envisioned the first time I saw it from the bluff in 2015.”