Why do I need one?

Since corn and soybeans are the primary crops grown in Illinois, fertilizers and tile drainage systems are used to maximize the production of these crops. One of the unintended results is that fertilizers leak into the tile drainage systems and move into the local waterways. Ten million acres of farmland are tile drained in Illinois; as a result, millions of gallons of water containing fertilizer wash into the waterways that feed into the Mississippi River and flow to the Gulf of Mexico.

Unfortunately, the nutrient load from Illinois contributes significantly to the annual "dead zone" in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Illinois is the #1 contributor of nitrogen (17%) and phosphorus (13%) loads to the Gulf, despite only contributing 7% of the flow. Illinois and 11 other states in the Mississippi River Basin have developed strategies to reduce their nutrient loads as part of a national plan to reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico "dead zone".

Smart Wetlands for tile drainage are one of the most effective ways to keep nutrients from moving off the farmland into Illinois waterways. This proven practice is eligible for Farm Bill conservation program (cost-share) funding. Federal financial assistance is available through two different Farm Bill conservation programs: the Conservation Reserve Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Programs.

Currently, only a few constructed wetlands have been installed on Illinois farms, but we believe this practice could be replicated throughout Illinois and the Upper Midwest Farm Belt to improve local water quality and help address the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.

While Smart Wetlands are designed for the specific purpose of improving tile drainage water quality, they are still shallow marsh habitats. Smart Wetlands are not deep enough for fish, but the native emergent wetland vegetation will attract many species of pollinators, waterfowl, birds, and other species. With the surrounding buffer of native grasses and/or flowering plants, Smart Wetlands create an attractive area where landowners can enjoy nature.


Will a smart wetland work for my farm?

There are several conditions necessary for a Smart Wetland to be an appropriate practice for reducing nutrient runoff from your cropland.

Your farm may be a good candidate if:

  • Your land is tile-drained

  • You have marginal, low-revenue land along a waterway, ditch, or stream

  • You are willing to set aside 3 or more acres of land for the wetland and its surrounding buffer

Each potential location is evaluated to determine if the hydrology, soils, and topography profile are appropriate for a Smart Wetland.

While the practice has a higher installation cost in comparison to an in-field practice, it is a one-time cost, and the wetland can operate with little maintenance for 30 or more years. Financial assistance is available through both federal conservation programs and the Wetlands Initiative.

Also, this edge-of-field practice does not require the farmer to change the farming practices used within the field.

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Constructed wetlands prove to be one of the most cost-efficient nutrient reduction solutions, in cost per pound of nitrogen and cost per acre treated per year. Christianson, L.E., J. Frankenberger, C. Hay, M.J. Helmers, and G. Sands, 2016. Ten Ways to Reduce Nitrogen Loads from Drained Cropland in the Midwest. Pub. C1400, University of Illinois Extension

Interested? Request a consultation, no strings attached.


What is the process for getting one?

Smart Wetlands are developed using a four-step process at no cost to the landowner.

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outreach and assessment

Our Field Outreach Specialist lives in central Illinois and works with our partners to identify cropland owners interested in adopting this practice as part of their nutrient loss reduction strategy. She meets one-on-one with the landowners and determines if their farm system would work for a tile-drainage based constructed wetland. An off-site assessment is performed to determine if the site has the adequate tile drainage area (hydrology), soils, and topography required for a Smart Wetland.

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Development and preliminary design

When a farmland owner is interested and a Smart Wetland is appropriate for their property, our Senior Engineer steps in to evaluate the proposed location. She then does the necessary on-site assessments to confirm the soil, hydrology, and topography conditions are suitable for a wetland.

If the site is suitable, a preliminary design will be developed for landowner approval.

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Preparation of final design with NRCS/FSA APPROVAL

Once the landowner approves the preliminary design, then a final engineering design is prepared to NRCS practice standards.

If the landowner wants to apply for U.S. Farm Bill cost-sharing funds, the Wetlands Initiative will work with NRCS and FSA to get the wetland design approved for federal funding.

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TWI then works with the farmland owner to choose a construction contractor to make sure the wetland is built according to specifications. Once the structure is in place, Wetlands Initiative staff will make sure the appropriate plant species are installed in the wetland, on its banks, and in the surrounding buffer.

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Could a Smart Wetland be right for your farm? Request a consultation.