USDA announced last week it is awarding $44.6 million through its Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership (WREP) to support 10 wetland enhancement projects on private and tribal agricultural lands in Iowa and 11 other states.
In total, the 12 projects will help protect, restore or enhance 15,000 wetland acres in critical watersheds across the nation. The projects are in Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin.
Iowa included in $49 million partnership to improve wetlands
The $3 million awarded to Iowa will be used to create wetlands covering 580 acres in the headwaters of the Iowa River and the Cedar River. “This project is designed to improve water quality and reduce downstream flooding,” says Ryan Harr, a private lands biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Improving water quality is the big issue. The idea is to intercept the drainage tile water and allow the wetland to process it and reduce nitrate levels before the water eventually drains into the rivers.”
The wetlands can also store runoff from heavy rains, slowing and lowering floodwater and provide habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.
The money is being used to buy easements from landowners in Winnebago, Worth, Hancock, Cerro Gordo and Wright counties, all of which are in the Des Moines lobe landform that is known for high nitrate levels. “This new money builds on the existing easement purchase program in the area,” says Harr.
Public-private investment approach for more conservation
The $3 million in federal funds is to be combined with $175,000 in partner investments. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Iowa DNR will address long-term wetland restoration in this prairie pothole region, while potentially reducing the impacts of flooding in the Iowa and Cedar river watersheds. The partnership will protect and restore prairie pothole wetlands and associated tallgrass prairie uplands on five sites. NRCS plans to invest $3 million and Iowa DNR $175,000 in this project.
“USDA is committed to protecting and enhancing our nation’s wetlands, critical to the quality of our nation’s waters, wildlife and landscapes,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in making the announcement. “By collaborating with private partners at the local and regional level, USDA is able to support innovative conservation solutions and expand the amount of dedicated resources. These are high impact projects that will ensure our land and water resources are healthy now and for the next generation.”
Wetland reserve easements are voluntary programs that work
WREP helps states, local governments and other organizations collaborate with NRCS to work with private and tribal landowners to voluntarily enroll eligible land into conservation easements that protect, restore and enhance wetlands on their property. WREP was authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill and is administered by NRCS. WREP is a special enrollment option under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.
Wetland reserve easements enable landowners to successfully reduce impacts from flooding, recharge groundwater, enhance and protect wildlife habitat and provide outdoor recreational and educational opportunities, said Vilsack. The voluntary nature of NRCS easement programs allows effective integration of wetland restoration on agricultural land, providing benefits to farmers and ranchers who enroll in the program, as well as benefits to the local and rural communities where the wetlands exist.
Since 2009, almost 1.3 million acres have been enrolled in NRCS wetland easement programs in the U.S., for a total NRCS investment of $3.2 billion in financial and technical assistance.