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Conservation Corner

Restoring the Floodplain

Wed, January 05, 2011

Water treatment plants, libraries, road construction – that’s what most people think of when they hear about Recovery Act projects. However in Illinois, America’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act goes even further. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) is restoring historical floodplains – with big benefits. According to Illinois NRCS State Conservationist Bill Gradle, “The funds used for Illinois recovery projects reduce damage caused by floodwaters—they fix problems before they happen again, which is good for us economically and environmentally.”

USDA-NRCS received Recovery Act funding to purchase easements from landowners who made the decision to take cropland out of production in flood prone areas. In most cases, the land can only grow a successful crop in 1 out of 5 years. According to Dave Hiatt, NRCS Wildlife Biologist, “In the past few years Illinois has experienced unusually wet conditions making this a prime opportunity to restore that land to its original function – storing flood waters.”

NRCS purchased the easements on more than 1,600 acres in nine counties throughout Illinois from private landowners and a county forest preserve district located close to suburban Chicago. All easements are located along streams and rivers that flow into the Illinois, the Mississippi, and the Ohio River Watershed Basins. The total cost for easements and restoration work is estimated at more than $5 million.

“Three easements located along the Wabash River join together with existing wetland restoration projects and will create five miles of restored floodplains,” adds Hiatt. Another project site is located with a contiguous natural area of 453 acres in the Embarras River floodplain. One particular project includes a substantial wetland restoration of historic Otter Pond in Lawrence County.

Once established, these contiguous wetlands will offer significant benefits for wildlife, provide flood prevention downstream, and protect water quality. In addition to flood control, floodplains provide wildlife habitats and create recreational areas. “From a tax dollar perspective,” said Hiatt, “floodplain restoration reduces crop disaster payments and saves recurring expenses of repairing levees and dredging steams.” That could save millions of dollars.

According to NRCS, ecosystem benefits are just as important. Once restored, these sites will provide high quality habitat for many species of wildlife and plants, such as migratory birds, waterfowl and shorebirds, and other wetland-dependent wildlife species.

Restoring a floodplain is not a quick process. It requires a plan for restoration work and time for new management and practices to influence that land.

All 11 Illinois projects were planned, designed, and built on schedule and were completed by the end of 2010. Each project had specific earthwork and site requirements, such as removal of a levee section, construction of small wetlands within the floodplain, and seeding of native grasses or planting trees.

USDA-NRCS offers the Wetland Reserve Program, or WRP, year round. The WRP is a voluntary program which offers landowners an opportunity to establish long-term conservation and wildlife practices and protection. Landowners who were not accepted into the Recovery Act projects may qualify for NRCS’ regular WRP. Contact the local USDA Service Center and visit with USDA-NRCS or Soil and Water Conservation District staff. Visit to learn more.