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Great Rivers

Funding to Breathe New Life Into Wabash River

by Cate Harrington 

For Hoosiers, the Wabash is more than a river. "It is Indiana's river," said Larry Clemens, The Nature Conservancy's assistant state director for conservation programs in Indiana.

The Wabash River drains two-thirds of Indiana, and more than 700,000 people live within a half-hour of the river. It even plays a starring role in Indiana's state song.

But more importantly for Clemens, the Wabash is chock full of 151 fish and 75 mussel species, several of which are rare or endangered.

"What makes the Wabash special is this amazing fish and mussel diversity, but many of these species are at risk due to changes in the river's hydrology and the increased levels of sediment and nutrients running off urban and rural lands into the river and its tributaries," Clemens said.

New Land Conservation Initiative in Floodplains

A new land conservation initiative announced by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels in June could breathe new life into the Wabash and the fish and mussels that depend on it. Utilizing $31.5 million from a state trust fund and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the state will work with willing sellers to acquire 43,000 acres located in the floodplain of the Wabash River and Sugar Creek in west central Indiana.

Some of these lands are enrolled in the USDA's Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP), and wetland restoration may be underway or already completed. In other cases, the state will not only acquire the land but restore the wetlands and other riparian habitats.

"Restoring land in the river's floodplain to wetlands and forests will provide more wildlife habitat and help filter nutrients and other pollutants before they reach the river," Clemens commented. "This has been one of the Conservancy's primary goals along the Wabash for many years, and this new initiative will give that effort a major boost."

Decade-long Investment in the Wabash

The Conservancy applauded Governor Daniels' initiative: "The timing of this initiative couldn't have been better," said Clemens, "given the significant level of conservation interest and investment already being made along the Wabash by the Conservancy and many other public and private partners."

The Conservancy has been working in the Wabash River watershed for more than a decade, beginning with the Tippecanoe River, one of the Wabash's largest tributaries and its most significant biologically. In 2007, the Conservancy completed a comprehensive biological assessment of the Wabash, funded primarily by Alcoa Foundation, which laid the groundwork for the Conservancy's Wabash River Initiative and its expanded conservation efforts in the watershed.

The Conservancy has partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help local landowners enroll 2,000 acres in the Wabash's floodplain into WREP and has a proposal into USDA to help fund another 5,000 acres.

Last year, the Conservancy joined with Ducks Unlimited and other partners to support the efforts of Wabash River Development and Beautification, Inc., a local Vigo County nonprofit, to create the 6,000-acre Wabashiki State Fish and Wildlife Area along the Wabash near Terre Haute. The new wildlife area will expand northward as a result of the Governor's initiative.

"The Governor's initiative is great news for the Wabash and the people of Indiana," said Clemens, "but it will also have impacts beyond the Hoosier state. The Wabash is one of the top five contributors of nutrients to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. What we do here in the next five to ten years will make a difference hundreds of miles downstream."

Cate Harrington is a senior conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy.

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