For more than two centuries, the Wabash River has served as a vital conduit for trade, travel and settlement in the Midwest. Apart from its historic importance for human livelihood, the Wabash is a treasure chest of rare and endangered species.
The Nature Conservancy is interested in the Wabash River because of its wide diversity of plant and animal life it shelters and feeds. As habitat for various plants and animals, the Wabash is in "fair" condition but continues to face degrading stresses. Conservation action is needed and must be strategic and science-based as the size of the watershed is large and the complexity of the land it drains - from farmland and homes to cities and industrial sites - is great.
Our primary conservation concerns are the main-stem of the Wabash for its fish and mussels, its floodplain and the high quality tributaries. Mussels are the proverbial "canaries in the coal mine" for rivers. The distribution of its species in the Wabash is widespread yet estimates indication that 55% of historic mussel population have been lost from the main-stem of the river and 24% lost from the tributaries that feed that Wabash.
Mussels are not the only specie of concern here. The Wabash provides an essential travel route from many bird species for breeding, feeding and migration. The river valley is a migratory fly-way, funneling neo-tropical migratory songbirds and waterfowl into the Great Lakes region each spring. It is estimated that between 250 and 300 species of birds visit the lands and waters of the Wabash watershed each year.
Wabash Aerial Surveys January/February 2012
The Conservancy is also concerned with the numerous drainage ditches, creeks, streams and rivers that feed the Wabash River. These tributaries have been ditched and tiled in ways that significantly alter the natural flow of water. This contributes to more frequent and intense flooding during rainstorms. The June 2008 floods affected 1.4 million acres of Hoosier farmland, resulting in a loss of $200 million. The effect of flooding goes beyond the agriculture community and affects us all.
In 2007, funded primarily from a grant from the Alcoa Foundation, the Indiana Chapter undertook a comprehensive biological assessment of the Wabash River compiling all available historic research on the water quality of the Wabash River. The report identified six major stresses that degrade the river as habitat and natural resource of plants, animals and man alike:
* Changed in natural water flow
* High nutrient, herbicide and insecticide levels
* Localized problems with pollution from cities
* Alternation of land adjoining the river
* Elimination of tree cover along the river
* Non-native species
The Nature Conservancy's Indiana Chapter and its Wabash Rivers Initiative - Tippecanoe Project Office has these goals in mind when working on the Wabash:
* Reforesting 20,000 acres in the Wabash River floodplain by 2016, working principally with partner organizations.
* Working with local land trusts to acquire and restore flood plain lands.
* By 2012, identifying the 20 worst tributary watersheds in the Wabash River basin in terms of overall water quality and habitat for fish, mussels, and other aquatic animals.
* By 2015, establishing ten new projects focused on improving water quality in ten of the worst watersheds.
* Participating in the Wabash River Watershed Consortium being spearheaded by Purdue University.
* Helping collect and analyze new data on the Wabash River to measure the effectiveness over time of our conservation actions and those of our partners.
* Coordinating with universities and agencies to initiate and facilitate a research agenda on non-traditional threats affecting plants/animals along the Wabash.
* By 2014, working with partners to demonstrate the effectiveness of at least 15 drainage projects to reduce pollutants that threaten fish and mussels.
Governor Mitch Daniels recently announced land conservation initiative concerning the Wabash River will surely make an indelible impact on this important natural resource and habitat. The Conservancy is looking forward to partnering with state and federal agencies as well as local residents, recreationists and conservation organizations to help restore and protect Indiana's river - the Wabash.