A Smart Move for Illinois Farmers

A Smart Move for Illinois Farmers

If you asked an Illinois farmer if they would consider building a wetland as part of their tile-drainage system, their likely response would be: “Why would I want to do that?” That reaction is not a surprise given that it was tile-drainage-adoption that enabled producers in the upper Midwest to plant crops into the fertile soil left behind after draining hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands.

However, it does make sense when farmers understand you are talking about a Smart Wetland, which is a constructed wetland for treating row crop tile drainage. Constructed wetlands are a proven method for removing nitrate-nitrogen, typically achieving 50% reductions.

The Wetlands Initiative (TWI) developed its Smart Wetlands program in support of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS). “Smart Wetlands are small constructed wetlands designed specifically to harness the naturally occurring biological and chemical processes to remove excess nitrogen from tile water before it leaves the farm field,” says Jill Kostel, TWI senior environmental engineer.

Each Smart Wetland is custom designed by TWI staff with the operator or landowner to fit the landscape and treat the tile system on that particular farm. Once installed, farmers have the ability to monitor the volume of nutrients entering and leaving the wetland. This can not only provide farmers data about the performance of the wetland, but also information on the effectiveness of their infield nutrient management practices on reducing nitrogen loss.

A constructed wetland is “SMART” because it is:

  • specifically sited and designed to reduce nutrient loss from a farm’s tile drainage system;
  • a measurable practice in terms of monitoring nutrient removal;
  • in alignment with the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy;
  • a resilient and relevant practice for a sustainable and productive farming operation; and
  • a time-saving practice that can remove nutrients for 30+ years with very little maintenance.

Smart Wetlands also offer valuable secondary benefits such as providing habitat for wildlife and pollinators and creating a temporary storage area to slow tile flow during moderate rain events.

To help raise awareness of Smart Wetlands and to inform farmers and landowners about how these wetlands could work on their farm, TWI recently launched the www.smartwetlands.farm website.

Our launched website outlines the criteria used to determine if a Smart Wetland is right for a particular tile-drainage system, features photos and engineering designs of two operating Smart Wetlands, reviews the 4-step process TWI uses to design and install the practice, demonstrates how natural processes remove nitrogen and phosphorus from drainage water, and offers suggestions on how to finance the construction of a Smart Wetland.

4 Step Process Toward Implementation

Smart Wetlands fit readily within a “systems approach” to nutrient loss reduction that can include cover crops, nutrient management plans, and more. As a member of the Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership, the Wetlands Initiative is spreading the word about constructed wetlands as one solution farmers can use to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss from cropland. TWI is proud to be part of ISAP’s efforts to support the agricultural community on ways they can use a systems approach to improve soil health and to meet the goals of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

For more information, contact specialists Jill Kostel, Senior Environmental Engineer, and Jean McGuire, Field Outreach Specialist on our Specialists Page or directly at:



Constructed wetlands & tile treatment practices
Email: jkostel@wetlands-initiative.org
Phone: 312-922-0777 ext. 129



Constructed wetlands 
Email: jmcguire@wetlands-initiative.org
Phone: 515-520-3036

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ISAP Coordinator