Project Aims To Convert Farmland Into Wetlands

The endangered Yellow-headed Blackbird breeds at the Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, a Wetlands Initiative project. (By Gary Sullivan -- The Wetlands Initiative)
By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 24, 2007

HENNEPIN, Ill. -- As steam rises from flat fingers of water reflecting an iron-gray sky, Donald Hey climbs to the top of an observation tower to watch a flock of American white pelicans huddled among the reeds. These reclaimed wetlands along the Illinois River, a man-made vista of corn and soybeans a few years ago, are now home to marsh grass, rare butterflies and 70,000 waterfowl.

But Hey and his green-minded colleagues have a greater hope for their 2,600-acre pilot project. They aim to prove the existence of a market lucrative enough to inspire landowners to surrender their fields for payments from agencies and companies that are required to comply with clean-water rules.

The untested theory, endorsed by a coterie of environmental groups and supporters, holds that restoring wetlands in the Midwest would be a cost-effective way to filter harmful nitrogen and phosphorous that damage ecosystems all the way down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.

If it works as intended, the system will also expand habitats for animals and waterfowl by returning farmland to its wilder roots, benefiting nature lovers and hunters. The organizers, led by the Chicago-based Wetlands Initiative, call it nutrient farming. The project's directors, now seeking state and federal permits, recently won a $15 million commitment from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Cook County.

"We think it's a good investment. We're confident that it'll work," said Richard Lanyon, the district's general superintendent. "We expect the state of Illinois will adopt water quality standards for nutrients and we will be obligated to meet those standards. We know wetlands remove nutrients."

The Wetlands Initiative project, backed by private donors and organizations including the Nature Conservancy, Argonne National Laboratory and several universities, is premised on cleaning water more cheaply and producing other benefits. It is grounded in science that shows wetland plants capture phosphorous and turn nitrogen into a gas that escapes into the air. They also can remove carbon dioxide from the air, thus reduce the greenhouse gases that many scientists say cause global warming.

"It's like dialysis for water systems," said Jim Nelson, the Nature Conservancy's vice president for public affairs.

Lanyon, whose $1-billion-a-year agency is responsible for treating wastewater from Chicago and 124 other municipalities in an 880-square-mile area, said the test for the nonprofit Wetlands Initiative is to show that a large-scale project can be established and perpetuated on a major river.

A critical challenge is developing an incentive strong enough to persuade landowners to go along.

Hey said the program's success hinges on the ability to create a market of "nutrient credits." Businesses and agencies that discharge waste into public waterways would compensate for fouling the water, the idea goes, by paying others to filter out harmful components.

In this case, the filters would be the grasses and other plant life in wetlands. The sellers of the credits would be the farmers, hunting clubs and other owners who devote their acreage to the network.

At first, the water district would be the main customer, paying farmers for converting their croplands to wetlands, said Hey, Wetlands Initiative's senior vice president. But, he said that would be only the beginning.

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