By Jason Johnson
Prior to European settlement, wetlands made up about 11%, or 4 million acres, of the Iowa landscape. Wetlands not only were prevalent in the Prairie Pothole region of north-central Iowa, but also were part of every watershed in the state. Today, however, 95% of Iowa wetlands have been drained.
Why were wetlands drained? A growing U.S. population, public health concerns and economic development led to conversion of the majority of Iowa’s historic wetlands in the 20th century.
Similar to the rich soils formed under native prairie grasslands, wetland soils, if drained, are highly productive and were quickly assimilated into Iowa’s agricultural land base. Conversion, however, was not without risk. Even with improved drainage, on some acres, farmers were lucky to get a crop one or two out of every five years. This, when coupled with a greater understanding of the ecological function and benefits of wetlands, led to the formulation of programs that would assist with retiring and restoring these problematic acres in the early 1990s.
Wetlands provide various benefits
Wetlands offer a diverse, healthy environment, where the flow of water, the recycling of nutrients, and the energy of the sun meet to produce a unique ecosystem.
Water-loving plants and animals flourish in wetlands, standing water and saturated soils. Wetlands protect biodiversity, housing the majority of Iowa’s endangered species. More than 10,000 invertebrate species are adapted to life in freshwater wetlands nationally.
Wetlands are valuable for people, too. They filter pollutants from upland runoff, help control flooding, and maintain populations of wildlife for recreational activities like hunting and birdwatching.
Other wetland benefits:
• Water quality improvement. Wetlands provide natural pollution control by removing excess ag chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, from surface waters.
• Water supply. Wetlands are reservoirs for rainwater and runoff. They reduce peak water flow after heavy storms, and recharge groundwater supplies as they release water into the ground.
• Wildlife habitat. Waterfowl, birds and other wildlife depend on wetland habitat for breeding, nesting and feeding.
• Sediment delivery reduction. Wetlands filter and collect sediment from runoff water, helping to reduce sedimentation in lakes and reservoirs.
• Farm economics. Farming frequently flooded, saturated or poorly drained areas can be expensive. The best economic choice may be to set aside a wet area as a wetland.
Options for restoring or constructing wetlands
Today, landowners have a variety of USDA programs at their disposal to assist with wetland restoration —from short-term contracts through the Conservation Reserve Program to permanent easements through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.
Following are four of the more popular wetland restoration options for Iowa farmers:
• Through ACEP, administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, landowners can enroll land into a permanent or 30-year wetland reserve easement.
For permanent easements, NRCS pays 100% of the easement value and restoration costs for the purchase of the easement. For 30-year easements, NRCS pays 75% of the easement value and restoration costs.
Sindra Jensen, easement coordinator for NRCS in Iowa, says one of the benefits of ACEP is that easements are transferred with the land, regardless of ownership. “Many Iowa landowners want a guarantee that their land will remain a wetland area,” she says. “Our easement programs provide that benefit.”
Jensen says there are 1,553 wetland easements in Iowa, covering nearly 175,000 acres in 86 counties.
NRCS announces annual sign-up deadlines for easement programs, but sign-up activities are continuous at local USDA Service Centers.
• USDA also provides a wetland restoration option in floodplain areas through CRP, called CP-23 wetlands. Administered by the Farm Service Agency, CP-23 wetlands can include restoring former wetlands or creating new wetlands that were converted for agricultural use.
CP-23 participants are guaranteed 10 to 15 years of annual rental payments, which cover up to 90% of the eligible costs of establishing the restoration. They can also receive a sign-up incentive payment (SIP), up to $150 per acre, as well as cost-share assistance for mid-contract management requirements.
Curt Goettsch, chief agricultural program specialist with FSA in Iowa, says there are more than 133,000 CP-23 wetland acres in the state. CP-23 wetlands are offered through the CRP continuous sign-up.
• Another CRP wetland option is the Farmable Wetlands Program, administered through FSA. It is intended to help farmers retire chronically wet cropland or restore farmed wetlands to increase profitability while improving water quality and creating wildlife habitat.
FWP is offered through the CRP continuous sign-up, and offers the same financial benefits and contract options as the CP-23 wetlands. Goettsch says there are nearly 95,000 FWP acres in Iowa.
• A fourth wetland option is a targeted approach to treating excess nitrogen in runoff water. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is a partnership between USDA and the state of Iowa to address water quality issues related to excess nitrogen in 37 counties in north-central Iowa. CREP provides rental payments and other financial incentives to encourage producers to voluntarily enroll in long-term CRP contracts.
CREP wetlands are more constructed, engineered wetlands, compared to restoring a natural area. They include an earthen berm, a steel sheet pile wall, a grouted riprap basin, and a water level control structure. CREP wetlands also have a buffer area that is seeded to native grasses and forbs.
Landowners who enroll in CREP receive 15 years of rental payments from USDA, paid at a rate equal to 150% of the weighted average soil rental rate; 100% cost-share for wetland restoration and buffer establishment; and a one-time, up-front incentive payment from the state of Iowa to enter a 30-year or perpetual easement.
Brandon Dittman, CREP field coordinator with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, says 83 CREP wetlands have been constructed covering 3,060 easement acres in Iowa that treat 104,136 watershed acres. “We estimate these CREP wetlands will remove 85,337 tons of nitrate-nitrogen over their lifespan,” he says. CREP wetlands annually remove more than 1.1 million pounds of nitrogen.
Johnson is a public affairs specialist with NRCS in Des Moines.