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Wetland revival

Kenny Lyles
Denny Lyle, of Keokuk County Farm Bureau, established a wetland on his Keota farm to reduce erosion and help benefit water quality. PHOTO BY GARY FANDEL
An increasing number of wetland acres in Iowa is benefiting water quality and providing wildlife habitat.
A new wetland on Denny Lyle’s farm is expected to both solve an ongoing agronomic problem and produce long-term water quality benefits for decades to come. That’s exactly what the Keokuk County farmer was aiming for.

The new wetland, Lyle said, should reduce farming headaches  because it’s located where water from tile lines tended to con­gregate, often causing erosion and making it tough to farm. But the wetland shouldn’t ad­versely affect any of the field drainage around it, he said.

Lyle also likes the fact that the wetland, along with his terraces, cover crops and other conservation practices, will help improve Iowa’s water quality.

“I think we all want to do our part to reduce nitrate losses, and a wetland is a very good tool for that,” said Lyle, a Keokuk County Farm Bureau member who raises corn and soybeans near Keota.

It’s been a similar situation for Louis Beck, who farms in the Miller Creek watershed in southern Black Hawk County. Contractors are finishing up a new wetland on a field of his that has always been a struggle to farm.

“It’s always been a problem area for us, especially after a big rain,” said Beck, who raises corn and soybeans near Buckingham. “This is going to be a good tool for us to both protect the soil and improve water quality. There are a lot of farmers out there working hard to improve water quality, and this wetland is a good tool to help do that.”

Both Lyle and Beck worked with local conservation officials from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for help designing and financing the wetland construction.

They accessed cost-share funding through various federal programs, as well as the state’s Clean Water Iowa initiative to help finance their wetland projects. The costs of dev­elopment and construction of wet­­lands and other edge-of-field practices installed through IDALS are nearly 100% covered by state and federal funding sources, said Shane Wulf, an environmental specialist for the IDALS water resources bureau.

Lyle and Beck aren’t alone. A grow­ing number of Iowa farmers and landowners are working with local conservation officials to determine if their topography would work for a wetland, Wulf said. “We have certainly seen the interest in wetlands accelerating, and it’s coming from all parts of the state,” Wulf said.

Wetland construction isn’t new in Iowa. Over the past 15 years, Iowa farmers and landowners have built roughly 90 wetlands through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). It’s a federal, state, local and private partnership that provides incentives to landowners who voluntarily establish wetlands for water quality improvement.

Wulf said there are more than 30 additional wetlands set to be installed in the next two or three years. The pace of wetland construction, he said, has increased and expanded with the addition of conservation funding through Senate File 512.

That measure, approved by the Iowa Legislature during the 2018 session and signed by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, provided $270 million in long-term, sustainable funding for implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS).

With the sustained funding, IDALS has targeted cost-share pro­grams for edge-of-field practices, such as wetlands, bioreactors and saturated buffers, which can deliver long-term water quality benefits. 

Wetlands are especially effective at removing nitrates from water from tile drainage, a key focus of the Clean Water Iowa initiative.

Research by Iowa State University shows that well-placed wet­­lands can remove 30% to 70% of nitrogen loads from drainage waters.