A new study will measure effects of wetland restoration work in western Kentucky.
A five-year, $1.36 million study funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will monitor the wildlife benefits and water-quality effects of wetland restoration in western Kentucky. Launched in June 2018, the study is being led by NRCS and The Nature Conservancy. Murray State University will implement the monitoring work.
“We work with farmers to take frequently flooded land out of agricultural production, plant native trees in the area, and where possible, restore the hydrology,” says Shelly Morris, TNC’s western Kentucky project director. “In some cases, we plug ditches that were installed decades ago to drain the land or install levees to retain water seasonally. After all this work, we want to know the impact we’re having on reducing nutrient pollution.”
According to Morris, an intact floodplain holds water after a flood event and slowly lets it drain back to the river. Many wetlands within the Mississippi River floodplain, however, have been ditched and cleared to allow for farming and development. As a result, water quickly runs off the land, taking excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediments into the river. This nutrient pollution makes its way down the river all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, where it contributes to a dead zone – a low oxygen zone nearly devoid of life – that is now the size of New Jersey.
Conservation organizations have worked for years to restore wetlands so the land can hold water longer, reducing the nutrient pollution going into the Mississippi River.
“We are excited about this project, not only because we are breaking new ground in terms of restoration monitoring, but because our results will aid the planning of future restoration efforts here in Kentucky and throughout the Mississippi River basin,” said Howard Whiteman, a professor in Murray State University’s biological sciences department and director of the Watershed Studies Institute.
The monitoring project will study the restored wetlands’ potential to reduce nutrient pollution and will measure water and soil quality. Murray State University will also look at the wildlife impacts of these restoration efforts. Clarifying the effects of restoration will help conservation groups conduct better restoration in the future and may help secure funding for future projects.