Restoration Brings 87 acres of Wetland Bank to Scott County
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
If you find yourself driving down County Road 11, look east just as you pass 225th Street for a magnificent view of a new asset in Scott County. What you’ll see is 87 acres of land restored to a fully functioning wetland. With picturesque scenery, it will provide amazing habitat for a plethora of wildlife while also improving water quality in Sand Creek, Scott County’s largest stream.
The land, however, didn’t always look the way it does today, and the story of this patch of land is as interesting as the creatures that now inhabit it.
For more than 100 years, this large chunk of land nestled in the northern edge of Helena Township was used for farming. It was first used as forage for livestock and in more recent decades as cropland for corn and soybeans. Crop production was aided by a large drainage ditch, as well as numerous subsurface drainage systems constructed over the years. These additions removed water that would naturally pool on the land to make the area farmable.
What are wetlands and why are they important?
Wetlands are often referred to as “Mother Nature’s kidneys”. They are areas where water levels persist at or above the ground surface long enough to support the growth of “hydrophytic” (highly water-dependent) vegetation. Although most people associate wetlands with ever-popular cattails, there are many different types of wetlands. In fact, wetlands can occur in woodlands, and many have no cattails or standing water in them beyond a few weeks in the year. Wetlands provide essential habitat for all types of wildlife, many of which are specially adapted to these permanently—or seasonally—flooded areas.
One of the more important functions of wetlands, however, is providing spaces where water from snowmelt and rainfall can pool. This helps prevents flooding downstream. In the process, they filter out pollutants like sediment, fertilizers and pesticides. This is why wetlands are considered the “kidneys” of ecosystems.
In Scott County, more than 70% of historic wetlands have been lost through improvements for agriculture and development. So, when the site in Helena was offered up for restoration, organizations and landowners alike jumped on the chance.
The Helena Wetland Restoration Process
Recounting this restoration story is Pete Beckius, retired District Manager and current part time Project Specialist at the Scott Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). Pete had envisioned the potential of this project for many years, and his leadership and knowledge played a large role in seeing the project through to completion. “The first real discussions started back in late November 2017,” Beckius recalled. Troy Kuphal, current Scott SWCD Director and Lisa Freese, Scott County’s Transportation Services Division Director, had a meeting with Glen and Duane Bauer—then owners of the property—to discuss the potential for restoring the wetland. It was Lisa’s leadership and vision that kicked everything into gear, Kuphal noted.
“The Highway Department had numerous road projects planned in the coming decade, some for which impacts to existing wetlands would not be avoidable,” Kuphal explained. Many of these impacted areas, however, needed to be replaced, or “mitigated”. Restoring a local wetland to meet this need would not only benefit Scott County’s environment, but also be more cost effective than other alternatives, saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long run.
“Discussions started with the landowners on what the boundaries of the property would be, and timing of the sale” Beckius said. The landowners were already interested in selling their property, and discussions set in motion a cooperation and steady partnerships that prevailed throughout the restoration.
Those partnerships consisted of the County, the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources (BWSR), and Scott SWCD. BWSR became a partner because they needed restored wetland acres to help communities in the metro area offset impacts resulting from road safety improvement projects. The three organizations held a series of meetings to determine all the logistics: who would own the property, where would the funding come from, who would survey the land and prepare construction plans, who would manage it once completed, and so on. “The approval and pre-planning process took the better part of a year,” Pete recalled. At the end, the Scott SWCD was identified as the party that would purchase the land and provide long-term oversight and management of the wetland.
In early 2019, a perpetual conservation easement (a permanent agreement to keep the land in conservation) was purchased by BWSR and placed on the land. A few months later, construction of a large berm across the ditch began. By late fall, construction and seeding—using over 680 pounds of specially-designed native grass and wildflower mixes—was finished. Restoration of Helena Wetland was essentially complete! Signage was placed around the restoration to indicate the area’s purpose. From initial meetings to final certification, the wetland restoration took a total of two years.
With deliberate, and conscientious energy going into planning, the project was designed to provide multiple environmental benefits. Restoring the land to native grasses and wetland plants provides food, shelter and nesting for a wide variety of upland and wetland wildlife species. Ducks, muskrats, butterflies, bees, turtles, and many other creatures can call this place home once again.
Wetlands also play a significant role in reducing the frequency and intensity of flooding. They act as natural buffers, soaking up and storing a significant amount of floodwater. In addition, wetlands improve water quality and replenish groundwater. The new berm which incorporates a water level control structure holds back water during storm events similar to what would occur naturally, while also enabling water levels to be lowered for maintenance purposes.
The Future of the Wetland
The newly restored wetland in Helena Township will stand for years to come as a beacon of conservation and natural habitat. Due to the purpose of the project and conservation easement restrictions, the land is not open to the general public. The Scott SWCD will be monitoring and maintaining the wetland and surrounding prairie, and the project will forever stand as a testament to what can be accomplished through public and private partnerships and cooperation.
Peter Beckius concluded his thoughts on the project perfectly. “Personally, I want to thank the Scott SWCD, Scott County, and all the staff for their vision, support and perseverance. I am grateful I had the opportunity to be part of a team-led effort to finally achieve the goal of successfully restoring this magnificent site.”
Wetland restorations are extremely beneficial practices that reduce runoff, add biodiversity, and improve water quality in streams and rivers. The Scott SWCD wants to continue working with landowners to achieve wetland restorations in Scott County.
The Scott SWCD offers technical assistance and information to anyone looking to implement conservation projects on their property. They also may offer financial assistance for residents starting a restoration project with the office.
To get the process started, call the Scott SWCD at 952-492-5425 or visit them online at scottswcd.org.