In 2008, Illinois received an unprecedented amount of rainfall, which flooded thousands of acres of agricultural lands. Historically, much of this land was floodplains that held and drained water. But in the past century, over half of the floodplains in Illinois have been altered by levees, lock and dams, and stream channelization. Water that enters these lands not only takes longer to drain, but also causes millions of dollars in crop damage.
To help reduce damage to flood-prone lands, and the associated costs for both farmers and local governments, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service recently offered landowners the chance to take flood-prone areas out of production through conservation easements, beginning the process of restoring these lands to their original function as floodplains.
Floodplains protect communities from catastrophic flooding. They also help filter pollutants from water draining off developed areas and provide a conduit for it to re-enter the water supply. In addition, floodplains provide high quality habitat for many species of wildlife and plants, including migratory birds, waterfowl and shorebirds, and other wetland-dependent wildlife species.
NRCS used funds from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the Recovery Act) to purchase the conservation easements. Under a conservation easement, the owner retains the property, but gives up any right to future development on it. The Recovery Act was created by the Obama Administration to boost the economy, in part by developing and improving the Nation’s infrastructure.
The properties are all located along streams and rivers that flow into the Illinois River, Ohio River and Mississippi River Watershed Basins. Combined with other projects, they create large areas of contiguous, high value wetlands. Three of the easements, located along the Wabash River, will link with other easement projects to create five miles of restored floodplains. Another easement will add to an existing area of 453 acres in the Embarras River floodplain.
Restoring a floodplain is not a quick process. It requires a plan for restoration work and time for new management practices to gradually alter the land—sometimes many years. In some cases regeneration takes place on its own; other times, projects require building a small structure or replanting native species to help the restoration process along.
In most cases, NRCS not only purchases the easements but also funds the restoration, playing a significant role in the protection and restoration of these important resources, with important assistance provided by the Recovery Act.
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