Smart Wetlands: The Wetlands Initiative helping make nutrient runoff the future wave of conservation

The Wetlands Initiative has combined efforts with Ducks Unlimited to spread the gospel of Smart Wetlands to help with nutrient runoff at the farm level, with the willing help of farmers.

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File photo of the Smart Wetland at Thacker Farms in all its glory. Credit: The Wetlands Initiative

File photo of the Smart Wetland at Thacker Farms in all its glory.

The Wetlands Initiative

WALNUT — Michael Thacker scrolled through his phone, then found and showed the photo of his daughter Ella and her 9-point buck. I understood his pride in his daughter.

Love is an undervalued motivation for conservation.

Thacker Farms in Bureau County was the site of the first Smart Wetland by The Wetlands Initiative, which also did the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge (Hennepin-Hopper lakes).

Michael Thacker holds Ellie (left) and Joey after a quick run around the experimental Smart Wetland at Thacker Farms in Bureau County. Credit: Dale Bowman

Michael Thacker holds Ellie (left) and Joey after a quick run around the experimental Smart Wetland at Thacker Farms in Bureau County.

Dale Bowman

Smart Wetlands are successful for TWI, which now is combining forces with Ducks Unlimited to combat the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxic zone. The Illinois River watershed, with its runoff of phosphorus and nitrates, is a major contributor to that dead zone of more than 5,000 square miles at the Mississippi River delta.

TWI describes a Smart Wetland as ‘‘a small, constructed wetland that uses naturally occurring processes to remove excess nutrients from agricultural tile drainage before it leaves cropland.’’

Last week, I visited two sites — Thacker Farms and Bonucci Farms — with Jean McGuire, a field outreach specialist.

As we walked at Thacker Farms, chorus frogs sounded, red-winged blackbirds trilled, mud held deer tracks and small birds I couldn’t identify flitted past.

For those who know the hypoxic-zone story, this isn’t to combat it at the broad landscape level but at farm level.

At Thacker Farms, TWI installed a four-acre Smart Wetland and grassland-pollinator habitat on a less-than-ideal corner of farmland to treat 40 acres of drain-tile runoff.

Thacker has about 3,300 acres of corn, 1,000 of soybeans, 200 of hay (for 300 head of stock cows) and 125 of wheat.

A file photo of a great blue lobelia (lobelia siphilitica) on the Smart Wetland of Thacker Farms. Credit: The Wetlands Initiative

A file photo of a great blue lobelia (lobelia siphilitica) on the Smart Wetland of Thacker Farms.

The Wetlands Initiative

‘‘The Thacker wetland was built on upland soils, so the native plant community was introduced by seeding and plug-planting,’’ noted Jill Kostel, a senior environmental engineer. ‘‘We added giant bur-reed and sweet flag to see how they would fare. For the tile-treatment wetlands that are located on prior converted wetland soils, we carefully stockpile those soils to add back in as the growth media with a native seed bank. We then supplement with seeds and plugs, as needed.’’

Kostel also makes sure plants meet government criteria. They’re looking for emergent marsh plants and plants with tolerance of high nitrate loads.

At Thacker Farms, research by UIC showed that between 2016 and 2019, more than 7,200 pounds of nitrates were removed. That’s up to 46 pounds per acre of drainage area per year.

After we finished at Thacker Farms, McGuire took me to Bonucci Farms. Its Smart Wetland was built on what was historically a wetland, so it had a seed bank. It only took a year to set up that wetland.

Every Smart Wetland has its own unique qualities and challenges; at Bonucci Farms, one is muskrats (houses pictured). Credit: Dale Bowman

Every Smart Wetland has its own unique qualities and challenges; at Bonucci Farms, one is muskrats (houses pictured).

Dale Bowman

‘‘Big picture, if this thing is going to work . . . these sort of wetlands need to be made normal across the Farm Belt,’’ said Paul Botts, TWI’s president and executive director. ‘‘That is the scale we are trying to initiate. . . . My personal dream one day is that the Farm Bureau buys into this. . . . Ultimately, the ones who will make this work for farmers is other farmers.’’

That’s where people such as Thacker really matter. He’s the chairman of the Bureau County Soil & Water Conservation District and has 200 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program and 80 in the bee-pollinator habitat. He uses filter strips and field borders.

The future matters for him. Ella, 16, follows her father’s footsteps. She was elected president of the Bureau Valley High School chapter of Future Farmers of America.

‘‘I’ve always been into conservation and love to have wildlife around,’’ Thacker said. ‘‘I would like to see wildlife survive around here.’’

More on Smart Wetlands is at smartwetlands.farm.

A file photo of the Smart Wetland at Thacker Farms working in all its glory. Credit: The Wetlands Initiative

A file photo of the Smart Wetland at Thacker Farms working in all its glory.

The Wetlands Initiative

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