Connecting Ag Tile Drainage to Conservation

Over the span of a week in late August, three ISAP partners – the Illinois Land Improvement Contractors Association (IL LICA), The Wetlands Initiative (TWI), and Pheasants Forever Quail Forever Illinois (PFQF) – collaborated with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to build two wetlands in northern Livingston County.

Jill Kostel, The Wetlands Initiative (second from left), Wes Lehman, landowner, (center), and Ryan Arch, IL Land Improvement Contractors Association (second from right) talk with two participants at the “Wetlands, Waterfowl and Wildlife” event held one evening of the five-day construction project. Photo Credit: The Wetlands Initiative.

In just five days, IL LICA installed two wetlands at Feather Prairie Farm near Dwight, Illinois – a half-acre restored wetland and a two-acre constructed wetland for treating tile drainage. The USFWS’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (PFW) and The Wetlands Initiative completed the design and covered construction costs. PFPQ and USFWS will be planting native species on 11 acres surrounding the wetlands to attract pollinators and other wildlife to the property.

The development and installation of these wetlands is the result of years of envisioning and planning by landowners Wes and Andie Lehman. Through his work with Springfield Plastics in northern Illinois and Indiana, Wes Lehman has seen how constructed wetlands provide wildlife habitat, something Wes values as an avid waterfowl hunter. After seeing what is possible, the Lehmans got to work. They first dredged an existing pond and decided to take advantage of the ag-tile drainage water which flows from the adjoining row crop fields through the creek on their land. When the plan started to take shape, they turned to their network to find partners who could make their dream a reality. This is where ISAP partners and the US Fish & Wildlife Service came into the picture.

Once the 2.01-acre wetland was constructed, the IL LICA contractors installed the water control structure and outlet pipe from the wetland to the nearby stream. A water control structure is used to manage the water levels in the wetland by controlling how much water flows into the nearby creek. Photo Credit: The Wetlands Initiative.

Typically, we work with local Soil and Water Conservation District and NRCS staff and our landowners to determine which USDA farm bill program can help with the cost of constructing a tile-treatment wetland,” said Jill Kostel, Senior Environmental Engineer with The Wetlands Initiative. “In this case, we worked with two long-time project partners, IL LICA and PFQF, and two new partners, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Springfield Plastics, Inc., to cover all the construction and seeding costs. While we built an ag-tile treatment wetland that looks a bit different from most of our previous Smart Wetlands, underneath it all, it is still designed and will be operated to remove nitrate from the tile drainage water before it enters the Illinois water system.”

Jason Bleich is currently a Private Lands Biologist with the USFWS’s PFW program, but he previously worked for Pheasants Forever Quail Forever Illinois for many years. “At PFQF we had so much flexibility to work with a variety of partners and landowners,” he said. “Fortunately, I have been able to bring that experience to my current job to create new partnerships that put more conservation practices on the ground.”

Becky Taylor demonstrates soil health practices using ISAP’s Rainfall Simulator. Photo Credit: The Wetlands Initiative.

Three special events were hosted throughout the week to demonstrate water control structures for water management to three different audiences. Farmers and conservationists participated in the “Agriculture and Conservation Expo” held on August 24 which featured the ISAP Rainfall Simulator. Becky Taylor, Resource Conservationist with the Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District, demonstrated how soil health practices and cover crops can reduce soil erosion and keep sediment out of surface water. Several other ISAP partners were on site to talk with attendees about their programs.

Katie Kauzlarich, State Coordinator for Illinois Pheasants Forever, talks to the crowd gathered for the “Wetlands, Waterfowl and Wildlife” event. Photo Credit: The Wetlands Initiative.

The “Agricultural and Conservation Expo” focused on in-field and edge-of-field conservation practices to reduce nutrient loss, while other events emphasized habitat management and the role of contractors in advancing conservation. The property was open to the public all week long, so anyone interested in the wetland installation could stop by to watch the progression.

If you have ag-tile drainage on land you own in northern Illinois, a Smart Wetland may be a great solution to reducing nitrate loss to nearby water bodies. Please contact Jean McGuire at to find out if a Smart Wetland will work for your property.

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Jean McGuire

Jean McGuire is the Field Outreach Specialist for The Wetland Initiative's Smart Wetland project. She works with TWI's partners to identify landowners who may have an interest in building a Smart Wetland on their property. Contact Jean to find out if a Smart Wetland will work for your property.