Misty rain cast a fog over the water. Trees, some budding green and others decaying, poke up through the pool, along with grass and reedy plants.
Ducks scatter at the sound of a foot crunching twigs on the banks, with their flapping wings rippling the water as they skim the surface.
In the distance, cars and trucks swoosh past on U.S. 40, but the birds darting from tree to tree in the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area pay no heed to the machines. They’re content in nature’s playground.
Indiana benefits from a growing wetlands alongside the Wabash River.
The reforestation of floodplains, a small but ecologically crucial slice of the Hoosier landscape, filters nitrogen and phosphorus from the waterway. That sifting process significantly reduces the hefty amount of those pollutants carried by the Wabash into the Ohio and Mississippi rivers downstream into the Gulf of Mexico, where their accumulation triggers growth of algae, the biological chain gets disrupted, oxygen depletes and aquatic life suffers.
Meanwhile, back in Indiana, the reforested floodplain creates a cleaner Wabash, making it more attractive and accessible to outdoors lovers, as well as animals, fish and birds. That circumstance is worth noting as Earth Day 2015 arrives this Wednesday.
The expansion of the riverside floodplain forest stands as a wise investment for Indiana, according to a study conducted last year by University of Notre Dame freshwater ecologists, underwritten by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. A total of 29,110 acres of farmland has been restored to its natural state, wetlands and forests. Those converted grounds remove 7 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus the Wabash sends downstream to the oxygen-challenged “dead zone” in the Gulf, and also improves the quality of the river’s Hoosier miles.
Adding another 55,000 reforested acres to the Wabash floodplain would reduce the nitrogen sent into the Gulf by 20 percent, or 1,100 truckloads a year, the study concluded.
Is 84,000 total acres of reforested bottom-land realistic?
“I don’t think that’s unachievable, if you get people behind the cause,” said Jennifer Tank, the Notre Dame professor of stream ecology who led the floodplain study. “So we’re just at the beginning, but I think the potential is there.”
The reforestation effort involves multiple partnerships, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, as well as local entities such as Riverscape and Vigo County Parks and Recreation, among others.
Wabashiki opened to the public in August 2010, when then-Gov. Mitch Daniels announced the Healthy Rivers Initiative to acquire 43,000 acres for wetlands along a 94-mile corridor of the Wabash, stretching from Shades State Park in Montgomery County to Fairbanks Landing in Sullivan County. The Wabashiki portion has grown to 2,748 acres, and “the DNR routinely looks for opportunities to expand the footprint of the fish and wildlife area,” Phil Bloom, DNR director of communications, told the Tribune-Star.
People in the Gulf states seemingly would applaud the addition of protected wetlands and crops-to-reforested-floodplain properties here. The Wabash contributes an over-sized amount of the nitrogen pollutants found in the Mississippi River Basin. Eleven percent of “dead zone” nitrogen is attributed to the Wabash, even though the river’s watershed comprises only 3 percent of the Mississippi’s basin.
The Notre Dame research helped The Nature Conservancy quantify the impact of Indiana floodplain reforestation in mitigating the problem.
“Restoring the floodplain is one of those things you know is good, but you don’t really know how much,” said John Shuey, director of conservation science for the Conservancy’s Indiana chapter. The study provided an answer.
The restoration of Wabash floodplain and drive to reduce the river’s nitrogen content shouldn’t negatively effect farming, Tank emphasized. After all, agriculture adds $44.1 billion to the state’s economy, according to the Indiana University Kelley School of Business.
“There’s pride in both our river system, as well as the agriculture we have,” Tank said. “So it’s great to work in this intersection.”
Another tool blending farming and conservation interests is a push by The Nature Conservancy to replace conventional V-shaped drainage ditches alongside croplands with two-stage ditches. In a nutshell, the two-stage adds 10-foot-wide, grass-covered “benches” to each side of the ditch, with angled walls a few feet below ground level. Like the reforested floodplain, the two-stage ditch filters the flowing water, limits flooding over the ditch banks, and helps keep the nitrogen fertilizer on the fields.
Since 2006, 55 two-stage ditches have been installed in 22 Indiana counties, said Kent Wamsley, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Upper Wabash Project. That includes a two-stage ditch in the Busseron Creek watershed in Sullivan County. Each ditch slows the water velocity by half, limiting sediment erosion and “making it a much more stable system,” Wamsley explained.
Two-stage ditches extend 26 miles through Indiana; the Conservancy would like to see that increase to 300 miles.
The reduction of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, in the Wabash watershed strengthens a river already special because of its free-flowing, wildlife-friendly state, flowing undammed for the final 411 miles. “Compared to other Midwest rivers, the Wabash is unique in its biodiversity,” said Matt Williams, who leads two water quality projects in Indiana for The Nature Conservancy.
Overall, Williams said, Indiana is “doing a good job” of caring for the Wabash, “but I think we can do even better in the future.” If so, more Hoosiers will boat, fish, hike and bird-watch along it.
“The higher quality the resource is, the greater the number of people who will use it,” he said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.