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Project Aims To Convert Farmland Into Wetlands
Environmentalists Hoping To Make Initiative Pay Off

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.

Farmers, he added, could also contract rights to hunters and anglers. And, because the wetlands take some carbon dioxide from the air, farmers could sell carbon credits to industries such as power companies.

"And these are bottomlands that aren't ideal for farming anyway; they're flood areas," Hey said.

"Wetland farming," Nelson predicted, "would pay better than crops."

"There's been a lot of interest in this in Washington," said Albert Ettinger, a lawyer with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. "A major pollution issue across the country is nutrients, and it will become more serious with ethanol demand and more corn going in. The problem will only get worse."

Ettinger said that environmentalists are "generally suspicious of trading deals" because the participants who promise to filter and reduce pollutants -- farmers and other landowners -- are often hard to monitor.

"The danger from our point of view is you have no way to enforce that promise," Ettinger said. "It can be a loosey-goosey thing. If the farmer blows it off, what do you do? But the Wetlands Initiative idea is more attractive to me than other trading schemes proposed. . . . They can monitor how polluted the water is going in and coming out."

A U.S. Interior Department study calculated that more than 70 million acres in the Mississippi Basin were drained for agriculture between 1780 and 1980. Six states, including Illinois, lost 80 to 90 percent of their wetlands.

Fertilizer runoff in the region is thought to be the major cause of the growing New Jersey-sized "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, where the flow of nutrients causes massive algae blooms that consume so much oxygen that it kills marine life.

The Chesapeake Bay, which has its own dead zone, is a similar laboratory for strategies to combat excessive nitrogen and phosphorus. Maryland legislators have proposed taxing new construction and using the money to curb runoff, partly by paying farmers to create strips of forest along bay tributaries. They also approved a measure mandating that dish detergent sold in the state must be virtually free of phosphorus.

In 2001 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that nutrient levels in the nation's waterways should be reduced. The government has mandated that state agencies enact water quality standards for phosphorus and nitrogen or adopt proposed federal limits on those nutrients, although there is no deadline yet. Illinois water reclamation districts have predicted it will cost $5 billion to install the necessary technology and $500 million a year to operate it.

Wetland ecosystems tend to be quick to restore themselves. At Hennepin, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, species including the rare Henry's Elfin butterfly and the endangered King Rail bird have returned, and the area has become a birdwatchers' destination.

The Wetlands Initiative, working with 5,000 acres in three parcels, has applied for an $11 million EPA grant.

"It's a tremendous accomplishment. We would love to see this take off all along the Illinois River," said Joyce Blumenshine, a Peoria-based member of the Sierra Club, which has been leading hiking trips at the Hennepin project.

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