Persistent flooding of their corn and soybean fields led Robert and Verneel Noerrlinger to return 535 acres to wetlands. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is urging other landowners along the Missouri River in Nebraska to consider doing the same.

Last week, the Noerrlingers' property was the site chosen by the USDA to announce a project that makes $26 million available through 2007 to restore 18,200 acres of wetlands along the river from Ponca to Rulo, about 200 miles running the entire length of the state.

The Lower Missouri River Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program is the first of its kind approved by the Agriculture Department.

"This partnership brings federal, state and local resources together to restore wetlands, provide habitat for wildlife and improve water quality," Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said in a statement.

The project's partners include USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, landowners, the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, local natural resources districts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service.

The project will create a continuous corridor for about 250 species of birds and an array of fish and plants that call the Missouri River home.

Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who was at the announcement, said the program will help continue reversing a decades-long trend of vanishing wetlands caused by the encroachment of agriculture and industry.

Rey said President Bush wants to protect 3 million acres of environmentally sensitive wetlands over the next five years.

"Today we're making a substantial down payment to begin redeeming that commitment," Rey said.

Besides the benefits to wildlife and the reduction of flood waters, the project will lower disaster relief costs because of less farmland in the floodplain as well as improve water quality because wetlands filter runoff from farmland, said Steve Chick, state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Chick said landowners who participate in the program can choose from a 10-year restoration cost-share agreement, a 30-year conservation easement or a permanent easement. Payments vary with the option selected.

Landowners enrolled in the program would retain ownership and control recreational activities such as hunting or fishing, he said.

Robert Noerrlinger has lived on his land near Union, 33 miles south of Omaha, since 1976. He said his fields flooded completely in 1993.

"In '94, we raised the best crop we ever raised," he said. "Then came '95, and all through the '90s, the river was so high, we got seep water all the time. We were looking for a way to get the place paid for."

This field in Union, Neb., is part of a $26 million plan to restore 18,200 acres of wetlands along the Missouri River.