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Protecting Ducks and Restoring Nature’s Kidney

November 9, 2018
By Darren Fraser , Emmetsburg News

by Darren Fraser

Ducks Unlimited wants to restore America's wetlands; but, in truth, wetland restoration should be on everyone's to-do list.

Iowa once was awash in wetlands. But farming, development and urban and suburban sprawl have reduced the amount of wetlands acreage to two percent. Aside from the damage to ecosystems this encroachment has caused, the loss of wetlands creates a problem for farming and for water quality.

Brian Garrels is Iowa's state chairman for Ducks Unlimited. Garrels is not oblivious to today's realities. "Agriculture is king [in Iowa]," he says. "I like to eat. I'm a farmer. What we are saying is some land can be preserved and restored to wetlands."

Garrels mentions fields that remain uncultivated for a good portion of the year.

"We try to facilitate the conversation with farmers," he says. He notes farmers do not have to sell their fields; easements allow a farmer to maintain control of the land. According to a 2005 report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, from 1992 to 2004, the Wetlands Reserve Program funded 51 easements in Palo Alto County for a total of 5,786 acres. As of 2004, the program restored 126,000 acres in 84 counties at a cost of $106,442,215.

Garrels says Iowa is laid out in a grid system that dates back to Lewis and Clark. Despite the radical reduction in wetlands acreage, Garrels says if there were six to eight acres of wetlands for every grid section of the state, that would allow for 50 percent reduction in nutrients going into waterways; hence, wetlands are known as nature's kidney.

He adds that 10 acres of upland is required for one acre of wetland. "That's why you can't have farming and crops butting right up to the edge," says Garrels.

Converting land to wetlands is typically a 10-year process. Garrels says there are four stages. The first stage is the pre-aquatic stage; in short, the land fills with water. Stage two witnesses the growth of aquatic plants that soon vegetate the land. According to Garrels, this is the most productive stage for ducks. This is the stage where the birds nest, find food and make the wetlands their habitat. When it reaches its third stage, the wetland is at full maturity. Crustaceans, including freshwater shrimp, inhabit the water. Smartweed, insects, larvae and all the requisite elements for the marsh to thrive align.

The fourth stage Garrels describes as being over-productive. "You may have rough fish and other invasive species. The water becomes to murky for sunlight to reach the vegetation below water level. Plants die. You have algae blooms." Prior to the advent of man, the fourth stage comprised part of a wetland's cycle of life. "When a wetland entered the fourth stage, the water would be drawn down through drought; that is, when weather was predictable," says Garrels.

Garrels adds a mallard hen eats the same food as does a carp. "But she can't compete. So, she'll move on."

To offset nature's unpredictability, Ducks Unlimited constructs water control structures at its restoration sites. When a site reaches stage four, a water control structure will draw down the water by letting it out. This allows for the wetland to dry out and for the process to begin anew.

"In the past, ducks needed water quantity. Now they need water quality," says Garrels. Wetlands, vegetation, waterfowl and indigenous creatures form a delicate ecosystem; the loss of any component affects the whole. "That's why it's important people understand how important these wetlands are," says Garrels.

One way to become involved is to sponsor a young member virtually from in vitro. For $200, Garrels says, "From conception until 21, they're a member." Members also have their names inscribed on cairns erected at restoration sites.



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