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Mighty Mississippi

New funding gives the Mississippi River floodplain habitat a boost.

From spring and into the summer of 2011, the Midwest witnessed unprecedented flooding after decades of land use practices that went against the grain of nature’s intention for the Mississippi River Basin. Years of river channelization, deforestation, wetland drainage and increased water pollution took their toll when the Mississippi River reached historic levels.

Before flood-control structures, urbanization and agriculture, bottomland hardwood forest, cypress and tupelo swamps, and moist-soil wetlands buffered these waterways. These natural habitats absorbed rainfall and snowmelt before gradually releasing it to streams or groundwater. The result was clean water, healthy habitat and a breathtaking landscape.

Today, eight states of the upper Mississippi basin have lost 35 million acres of forested wetlands – an area the size of Illinois. With a loss of more than 80 percent of the 1.5 million acres existing in Kentucky in the 1780’s, the Bluegrass State makes it into the top ten list of states with most wetland acreage lost. That’s the reason The Nature Conservancy of Kentucky has been hard at work to reverse these trends at strategic watersheds within the Mississippi River Basin.

In 2011, those efforts got a boost.

New Initiative Benefits People and Nature in Mississippi River Basin

In June 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced $14.4 million in 2011 targeted at 19 projects in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri. Through the new Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), the NRCS is working with partners like the Conservancy in these states to provide technical and financial assistance to landowners promoting water quality, restoring wetlands and enhancing wildlife habitat in ways that still preserve what equates to the nation’s most productive agricultural landscape. MRBI funds will be directed to priority small watersheds through the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative and the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP)

Conservation Success

Since this new source of funding became available in 2011, The Nature Conservancy of Kentucky has engaged in a strong and productive partnership with the NRCS and the local Conservation District to get the word out, assist with the process and paperwork, review sites and enroll landowners in order to secure additional natural buffer and productive farmland for those working and residing in this unique area of the Bluegrass State. The efforts have paid off. By 2013 landowners accepted offers on 3,748 acres to be enrolled into the WREP thanks to the additional MRBI funding dedicated through 2014 to assist landowners with restoring and protecting wetland habitats for wildlife and improving water quality locally and throughout the Mississippi River basin.

Jump Started With Partnership

While the MRBI has been a great source of new conservation funding for restoration in the Mississippi River Basin, the Conservancy already had a head start in helping river floodplains mimic nature in western Kentucky. Thanks to the Ingram Barge Company’s generous support and a commitment to the protection of our nation’s river system, the Conservancy has already been working with local landowners and partners to reduce runoff and secure conservation easements in the portion of the Mississippi River system fed by the Obion Creek and Bayou du Chien watersheds, a predominantly agricultural landscape free of flood control structures.

By combining MRBI funds with other state and private funding, the Conservancy has had the opportunity to further leverage funds and provide greater incentives and compensation for farmers in these watersheds to help reduce flooding and agricultural runoff through restoration and by working to permanently protect these habitats for the benefit of future generations. All of these actions advance efforts to restore and reconnect bottomland forests and wetlands in these watersheds with the Mississippi River. Success means an opportunity for a portion of the Mississippi River to flood naturally, which prevents additional devastation, improves water quality and returns the landscape to its original beauty.

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