(This video was originally broadcast on Iowa Outdoors, Episode 809, August 1, 2018.)

Over the last 150 years, the majority of Iowa's native wetlands have been destroyed. In fact, less than 10% of our state's original marshes, fens and bogs still exist.

And while that loss is great, those wetlands aren't necessarily gone forever. There is an entire network of farmers, conservationists, homeowners and developers working together to restore the lost benefits of Iowa's wetlands. 

Kevin Griggs, Iowa Ag Mitigation Bank: This is a private developer's project. So their idea was they purchased this piece of land and came up with a design for residential development where they could build houses on the higher areas. But this particular property included quite a large piece that is down in the flood plain of the Raccoon River and really couldn't do a lot with it. So their original intent was just to make an open space, an asset for the homeowner's association, and we're going to make some modifications to the site just to make it a little bit wetter. We're going to put some cross berms in here just to slow the water down as it comes through the site. And then we're going to plant it to native wetland species. 

Kevin Griggs is in the wetland restoration business. More appropriately, his non-profit business, the Iowa Ag Mitigation Bank, works to restore wetlands, take the flood mitigation credits from a site and send them to farmers who wish to develop on flood plain land. 

Griggs: The way Iowa Ag Mitigation Bank works is we work with farmers that have a need for replacing wetlands on their own property. So let's say that they want to replace a one acre farmed wetland on their property with a wetland someplace else. They have the ability to do that themselves on their own property, but a lot of people don't have the time, the experience or the property available to do that. So the Iowa Ag Mitigation Bank provides another solution. They're able to purchase a credit for that wetland at a project that we have already developed. In this case, this particular one is going to be about 27 acres. This will provide the opportunity to provide 27 acres of mitigation for farmers that need to mitigate that land themselves. 

In the flood mitigation world, this West Des Moines site is a perfect example of how an urban development can benefit a rural partner. The urban property owner retains the land use rights, while at the same time a rural farmer benefits from those flood plain reduction efforts. 

Griggs: We wouldn't normally think of a development project within the city of West Des Moines to provide suitable mitigation for farmed wetlands in North Central Iowa but this one, it just works. All the right features came together, the right interest was there, the right players and we're just going to make it work. 

Until the late 1970s, some government programs actually encouraged the conversion of wetlands for farming and development. This indifference led to over 90% of Iowa's wetlands being destroyed, which means the Iowa we see before us today is nothing like it once was. 

Sindra Jensen, Natural Resources Conservation Service: So there were stories of people being able to canoe across Central Iowa because of the potholes that were out there. So we have effectively drained a lot of those. Our rivers we channelized to straighten the rivers. We have reined them in so that the flood plains aren't as big as they're more the size they used to be. So we would have had rivers that wave back and forth and had a nice flood plain where it could have come out and flooded in the vegetation and gone back in without doing any damage. So we've altered that a lot in Iowa but that is what it would have looked like. 

Mitigating flood risk is something all Iowans are on board with. However, filling in wetlands removes a long list of benefits that comes with them. 

Jensen: So, wetlands, they are an amazing ecosystem of wildlife and flowers and grasses. And then there's the whole water quality benefit of wetlands. Their water sits in them and slowly goes back into the ground, back into our aquifers, recharges our groundwater that a lot of folks get their drinking water from. So they help settle out all the contaminants and nutrients that you don't want to drink so it makes it more cost effective for the water treatment plants to treat those waters. 

And restoring wetlands has the potential to bring back all of those benefits. In Sac City, Kirby Roberts was so enamored with the conservation aspects, as well as the hunting potential for restoring his wetland property, that over the course of several years he actually established the largest privately owned wetland in the state. 

Kirby Roberts, Sac City: I bought my first piece of ground in 1992. The big pond was here but it was farmed all the way around it up to the water. I could see the potential over here because there was water standing in the fields, the corn fields. So I bought it and with that I continued to buy and I bought a total of eight times to accomplish my 220 acres. 

Griggs: Kirby has done a fantastic job at restoring wetlands on his property. He is very, very passionate about that. He has taken upon himself to enter into several federal programs, the Wetlands Reserve Program and a couple of other ones, to provide some financial assistance to help him restore those. We were actually able to come in after he had finished all that construction, purchase the permanent easement from him and provide that permanent protection for that site. 

In this case, permanent means permanent. Wetlands that are restored through the National Resource Conservation Service can never be farmed or developed again. That may sound like a negative for farmers, but the process does generate revenue for otherwise unproductive land and the entire restoration is taken care of. 

Jensen: We pay 85% of the market value of the property, which can be considerable. In Iowa we have such great soils, our land values are fairly high, so we'll pay for that. And then we also pay 100% of the restoration cost. So we'll come in and do the seeding and do the dirt work and pay for all that for you. 

In all, the wetland restoration process is a win. While it took generations of native habitat loss to get to this point, these modern conservation actions are helping bring modern life into harmony with our natural environment. 

Griggs: Certainly conservation minded in that the purpose of the Ag Mitigation Bank is to replace those low quality farmed wetlands with a higher quality wetland that is permanently protected. This property is a good example of that because it was a flood plain wetland before any development ever came to West Des Moines. It was cleared and drained for agriculture originally. This was the outskirts of the Metro area. So in this case we're able to do that. This is former farm ground. Now it's going to have a permanent protection on it, it's going to be wetter than it was before and it provides aesthetics. To build houses around this large wetland complex is going to be fantastic for those landowners. They will be able to watch the wildlife and enjoy the scenery out their back windows. 

REAP
Gilchrist Foundation