Wetland Restoration—More Than Just Birds and Bees
Photos by Mike Budd.
Each year, Illinois hunters purchase the Habitat Stamp, which provides dedicated funding for conservation. These stamp sales produce a significant amount of funding that goes directly toward habitat restoration right here in Illinois. But the benefits go well beyond the birds and the bees, especially when it comes to wetland restoration, as wetlands also benefit people in the form of water storage, flood retention and water quality.
Wetlands store water during large precipitation events and allow for a slow release, reducing storm-water runoff and erosion. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there are roughly 225,000 properties in the 100-year floodplain in Illinois. On paper, there is a 1 percent chance each year that these properties could be inundated with flooding. Unfortunately, 100-year flood events are becoming much more frequent. For instance, the small town of Watseka, in Iroquois County along the Iroquois River, has seen four 100-year floods in the last 12 years. When the Iroquois River escaped its banks in 2018, more than 100 homes suffered water damage, resulting in 54 homes that had to be elevated and another 65 homes that will soon be demolished.
As river towns such as Watseka continue to experience more frequent flooding, water storage and flood retention will also become increasingly important. Slowing down water before it enters the rivers will help mitigate these flood events. Take a drive in the northern two-thirds of Illinois after a big rain event and you will see hundreds of wet spots in the fields. Even easier, look at the aerial images on Google Earth or other online aerial imagery. These ponded areas, which were historically seasonal wetlands, are usually hard to farm and produce low crop yields.
The potential for water storage here is huge! Fortunately, the process of slowing and retaining water is easier than one would think. An inexpensive water control structure on existing tile, minimal dirt work, and a little native seed is all it takes to restore these prairie pothole wetlands. If a good portion of these old pothole wetlands were restored, it would reduce devastating floods, improve water quality, and produce more wildlife for Illinoisans.
Through the “Illinois Duck Factory,” a partnership effort between private landowners, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the opportunity exists to restore these vital wetlands. The Illinois Duck Factory is a strategic, team-oriented approach to restore historic pothole-type wetlands, with a significant portion of the funds coming from the Habitat Stamp fund. As of December 2020, this partnership has restored 141 acres of wetlands. The amount of water held in these wetlands is at least 54,205,385 gallons. That is enough water to fill more than 400 average sized single-family homes from floor to ceiling, assuming an average sized family home of 1,800 square feet. A home of this size could hold approximately 108,000 gallons of water. In comparison, a wetland one acre in size and 6-inches deep, can hold 163,350 gallons of water. That is more than a house full! Six inches of water spread across 1 acre of land also creates one heck of a hunting opportunity.
As the restored wetlands age, they seem to get better in terms of the diversity of wildlife they hold. In the spring of 2021, several of the restored wetlands held tundra swans, a species that had not used the wetlands in previous years. The swans were swimming next to canvasbacks, pintails, mallards, teal and a few other species of ducks. Once the ice melts each spring, and the temperatures start to get above freezing, the chorus of frogs is nearly deafening. What a treat it is to bring life back to the land while simultaneously providing clean water and water storage for everyone downstream.
If you are interested in restoring wetlands, contact Jason Bleich at email@example.com to get started.
Jason Bleich is a Private Lands Biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Illinois. He has worked with private landowners the majority of his 11-year career in natural resources, including Pheasants Forever and the Ford County Soil and Water Conservation District. Originally from Illinois, Bleich has had the opportunity to work in multiple states, including Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri, before returning to his hometown in east-central Illinois. Bleich is excited to continue working with Illinois landowners and conservation partners in his new capacity with the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.
Katelyn Beckemeyer is a Wetland Specialist for Pheasants Forever in Illinois. She has an extensive background in wetlands ecology and has worked in Kentucky and Arkansas. While in Arkansas, she earned a master’s degree in forest science from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She looks forward to assisting local landowners in wetland restoration to help bring back the wildlife habitat that was here many years ago and the wildlife species that will benefit from it.