DWIGHT, Ill. — It’s a given that wetlands provide “nature’s kidney” for reducing nutrient losses into waterways and provides wildlife habitat, but a unique project in northern Livingston County took those benefits to another level.
Through the diverse collaboration of The Wetlands Initiative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Illinois Land Improvement Contractors Association and Pheasants Forever Quail Forever Illinois, land not suitable for crop production was transformed into two wetlands that filter about 150 acres of adjacent corn and soybean fields.
Construction of 1.13 acres of constructed wetland for treating tile drainage and about six-tenths of an acre restored wetland at Feather Prairie Farm, just west of Dwight, was completed over about five days and native plant species were planted on 5 acres surrounding the wetlands to attract pollinators and wildlife to the site.
The roots of this unique collaboration that focused both on water quality and a ramped-up wildlife habitat began when Wes and Andie Lehman started Feather Prairie Farm two years ago where they raise game birds and provide a dog training facility.
Wes also works at Springfield Plastics, a drainage tile manufacturing company that has partnered in numerous conservation projects.
“We typically work with landowners and contractors that want to improve the land and ultimately boost yields. My company is very conservation minded, so we were highly involved with The Wetlands Initiative, the federal government, Natural Resources Conservation Service, or Soil and Water Conservations Districts, and we work closely alongside the Illinois Land Improvement Contractors Association,” Lehman said.
Lehman became aware of TWI’s work in 2019, when he was operating a bulldozer for Springfield Plastics at Illinois Central College for the installation of a constructed wetland.
It was during that work when he met Jill Kostel, TWI senior environmental engineer.
“As we snowballed all of these ideas and threw them around, I had a vision of what I wanted to do. I had built a pond because I always wanted a pond and it just got me thinking on the backside of the pond the water has to go somewhere,” Lehman said.
Kostel visited the former pasture and said the site would be adequate for wetlands. Lehman was then connected with Jason Bleich, USFWS’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program private lands biologist, who also visited the site — and the “snowball” grew larger.
Lehman also contacted Ryan Arch, Illinois LICA executive secretary, to discuss the potential project for this year.
“Typically, LLCA tile at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur and this year’s show was in Iowa, so their schedule was pretty well clear this year,” Lehman noted.
“I finally said why don’t we all get together, and this project got bumped up to a priority list because I wanted people to see what could happen with marginal ground or ground that’s technically not in use.”
“It started with Jill, Wes and I meeting on site to see if it’s the right type of project that fit everybody’s goals. It was and Wes was onboard to go as big and make it as good as possible. So, essentially, we then got Pheasants Forever onboard, Ducks Unlimited and several other partners,” Bleich said.
“We started working on surveys to design the plan, funding sources. We got all the partners involved together. Everybody got to the table, figured out how much we could fund, and six months later here we are.
“It was a really quick turnaround on this project, especially when you have a landowner and partners that have that much energy and that much motivation. We can do these projects with a pretty quick turnaround.
“We started putting the plans together, and six to eight months later here we are moving dirt, the project will be done, we’ll have a happy landowner and happy partners.”
This was the first time the numerous organizations collaborated at this level.
“We’ve been talking to The Wetlands Initiative for several years trying to figure out ways to partner. We just never really had the right scenario where our priorities and theirs kind of meshed until this project came along,” Bleich said.
“It was in similar priority areas for both of us with a landowner that had the same goals as our program and also with The Wetland Initiative, so it’s kind of like the stars aligned for this to work out. We’ve wanted to work with them for several years. We finally had this chance and we jumped on it.
“We’ve done several projects around east-central Illinois where we’re either partnering with Ducks Unlimited or Pheasants Forever or USDA. This is the first one that really got everybody to the table together and the cool thing about that is we all realized how similar our goals are and I think it’s going to open the doors for us to go to work together in the future.
“The cool thing about it is, so TWI’s main priority is water quality, which is a great sell to the general public, to local communities, it’s something that whether you’re a little kid or you’ve been around the block or you’re a farmer or whoever, everybody should be invested in water quality. Obviously, our Fish and Wildlife Program’s main priority is wildlife habitat, but the great thing about wildlife habitat and water quality is they go hand-in-hand.
“Then you involve Pheasants Forever with pollinator habitat and upland game habitat, and all of a sudden we have several partners with all of the same goals.”
Lehman enjoys the habitat side of the project, the opportunity it creates for the dog training side of the farm and a way for visitors to enjoy the outdoors.
“But going back to the drainage tile side of things, a lot of people aren’t paying attention to what nutrients are becoming water soluble and going out to the outlets,” Lehman said.
“If you look at what’s going on in the world today and how precious fresh water is, we need to be more conscious about what’s actually going on subsurface and cleaning that water prior to it ultimately going to the Mississippi River Watershed and getting down to the Gulf and creating that hypoxia zone. It fluctuates every year.
“Illinois plays a huge part in that and we’re farming ditch to ditch, taking out tree lines, shortening buffer zones in between our creek beds, which I get it, everybody is out to make a dollar. But we also have to think about saving that black dirt and saving our fresh water sources and that has to be on everybody’s mind because at some point we are just taking advantage of Mother Nature and she will bite us in the butt.
“Look at the Platte River in Nebraska now or the struggles California is having trying to find ways to get them water like robbing from Peter to pay Paul. It’s our jobs to be conservation minded to do our part in preserving the black gold we call topsoil or the water that’s coming out of our outlets.”
This is the sixth constructed wetland TWI as been involved with in Illinois and the goal is to install at least two each year.
“We provide free technical assistance, engineering and construction grants. We hope to make these very cost effective to encourage people to do them. It is an expensive practice upfront, but it requires no changes in the field, low maintenance, and it will last as long as there is water in it,” Kostel said.
“There’s no end of life for this. It’s not a 15- or 30-year practice. It’s actually the most cost-effective practice for removing pounds of nitrogen and also removing phosphorous.
“Compared to our other wetlands, this one is going to take more surface flow coming into it, which is part of the design. With the pollinator habitat, we’re not worried about soil erosion or sediment getting into the wetland.
“It’s nature’s kidney. There is a natural chemical biological system of processes happening in the wetlands that are taking care of all of that. We’re just trying to give him the conditions that it works best at — shallow waters, the right vegetation to encourage the microbial community to transform the nitrate into nitrogen gas.”
“It’s an extremely large team effort. Everybody is running like a well-oiled machine right now. LLCA members were very generous to bring in their own equipment rather than relying on other dealerships to bring in equipment. Altorfer brought in an excavator and Martin’s brought in a dozer and a large excavator,” Lehman said.
“Everybody is working together and it’s nice to see each different government-based programs able to make a project like this happen.”