Win For Wetlands: Program Helps Farmers Conserve More Flood Prone Land

Aug 6, 2018

The Relict darter is endemic to Bayou de Chien in west Kentucky.
Credit Nicole Erwin/ Ohio Valley ReSource

West Kentucky farmer Judy Wilson says her family is a bit of a sundry bunch.

“We love the farm, but we also love all the nature,” she said.

Wilson is driving down a back-country road that divides two fields, to the left is her soybean crop and to the right is 102 acres that she has placed in the Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program, something her husband always wanted.

 

“After he died my daughter and I decided to go for it,” Wilson said. “That’s low ground so that all would flood.” The WREP allows her to live out her husband’s legacy.

 

 

Storms approach as Judy Wilson tours conserved plots of her farm
Credit Nicole Erwin/ Ohio Valley ReSource

WREP is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program funded through the Farm Bill. It offers landowners the opportunity to protect and restore wetlands on their property. Landowners like Wilson are paid for each acre of farmland taken out of production permanently.

Wilson explained that the farmers in the area are at the mercy of the mighty Mississippi River.

“It’s always been flooding. But it does seem like more,” she said. “It seems like more land has been maybe cleared and so it’s affecting more land.”

Riparian habitat on Judy Wilson’s farm.
Credit Nicole Erwin/Ohio Valley ReSource

Nitrates from agricultural, industrial and urban runoff create areas of low oxygen, or hypoxic zones, where marine life struggles to survive. The Gulf of Mexico has the second largest hypoxic zone in the world.

Murray State biologist Michael Flinn wants to better understand how the water drained from the Mississippi River into the Gulf could be filtered through soil.

“We want to know what is the concentration of nutrients that exists in that water when it starts to flood. And then what is the concentration of the nutrients in that water when it goes back out into that channel, after that restored wetland has had a chance to chew on it,” Flinn said.

Rising Flood Problems

The Pew Charitable Trusts reports flooding is the fastest-growing, most costly type of natural disaster in the U.S., and long-term climate data show that parts of the Ohio Valley are highly vulnerable. The federal government’s National Climate Assessment shows that over the past 50 years heavy downpours, linked to flash flooding, have increased at a higher rate in parts of the Ohio Valley than anywhere else in the country.

Land use can, of course, determine where the water goes in those heavy rains, and farms play a role. Over the years wetlands have been stripped and drained to grow crops. And as waterways have been channeled to work with farms and ditches, many of the natural twists and turns that regulate momentum in streams have been removed.

Those features are also habitat that some wildlife depend on, such as the endangered relict darter fish that lives in the Bayou de Chien, a waterway in the Mississippi floodplain in western Kentucky.

“It’s endemic. It’s not found anywhere else in the world except in the upper watershed of Bayou de Chien, which is really interesting,” Shelly Morris said. She is project lead for the Nature Conservancy. “By taking these lands and putting them back into conservation cover, providing habitat, providing better cleaner water, we’re impacting everything,” she said.

 

Farm Bill Effects

The WREP could become more important as other wetlands protections come under assault. Under the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency is attempting to repeal the 2015 application of the Waters of the United States rule, also known as the Clean Water Rule. This would remove protections placed by the Obama administration on areas including wetlands.

The final comment period closes August 13.

The Farm Bill being debated in Congress could have significant effects well beyond farms, including on our waterways.