Re-Naturalizing the US: A New Goal, Thanks to Climate Change

If there is a silver lining to the increasingly severe weather we’re experiencing it’s that people are being forced to push back on development and focus instead on restoring our natural systems.

That’s happening in NY and NJ as a result of superstorm Sandy, where many coastlines will be restored to wetlands and barrier islands, rather than subdivisions.

And it’s beginning to happen in the Midwest, where a combination of floods and severe drought are becoming crippling.

We recently wrote about Floating Islands International, which builds artificial islands that have a "concentrated wetland effect."

Now, we’ve heard about another method that can be used to restore networks of small wetlands, which used to be common across the Midwest.

The solution to both increased flooding and severe drought is to  "re-naturalize" the hydrology of a large section of the United States, say engineers at Oregon State University. 

Midwest Wetlands

To do that, researchers have created an online tool that allows people to test multiple solutions in a simulated environment of their watershed landscape.

Their tool, which is being tested in a crop-dominated watershed near Indianapolis, identifies small areas best suited to wetland
development, optimizes their location and size, and restores a significant portion of the region’s historic water storage ability using only a small fraction of its land. 

Using this approach, researchers have been able to capture runoff from 29% of a watershed using only 1.5% of the land. 

"The lands of the Midwest, which is one of the great food producing areas of the world, now bear little resemblance to their historic form, which included millions of acres of small lakes and wetlands that have now been drained," says Meghna Babbar-Sebens, assistant professor of civil and construction engineering at Oregon State. "Agriculture, deforestation, urbanization and residential development have all played a role. 

"Historically, wetlands in Indiana and other Midwestern states were great at intercepting large runoff events and slowing down the flows," she says. "But Indiana has lost more than 85% of the wetlands it had prior to European settlement." 

In the
Midwest, many farmers growing corn, soybeans and other crops have placed
"tiles" under their fields to rapidly drain water into streams, which dries the
soil and allows for earlier planting. Unfortunately, it also concentrates
pollutants, increases flooding and leaves the land drier during the summer.

Today, the EPA released the results of the first comprehensive survey on the health of thousands of streams and rivers and finds at 55% are in poor condition for aquatic life.

27% of rivers and streams have too much nitrogen, 40% have high levels of phosphorus, 9% have high bacterial levels and 9% have high mercury levels. A lack of vegetative cover is also causing waterways to be more prone to flooding, erosion and pollution.

Excess nitrogen and phosphorous are from intensive applications of fertilizers on both farms and lawns.

This could help turn industrial agriculture towards better practices –  commonly used in organic agriculture – such as the use of winter cover crops
and grass waterways that retain and more slowly release water.

Other partners on the project are research teams from
Indiana and Purdue Universities, Wetlands Institute (New Jersey) and the US EPA. Funding is from the National Science Foundation and Indiana State Department of Agriculture.

Here is their website:

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