Photo of gull on the beachRural Action’s Watershed program spent 2021 preparing for a major expansion in its work with a project to restore wetlands in the Western Lake Erie Basin watershed, funded by the H2Ohio program, which was developed in response to water quality problems including harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie caused by phosphorus runoff from fertilizer, failing drinking water, wastewater, and home sewage treatment systems. Our project will use data to target areas that can have the most impact on solving the problem, which sets it apart from past efforts.

“It’s pretty far outside the region we’ve historically worked in, but it’s a statewide initiative,” says Julia Sullivan, who joined Rural Action in 2021 as our Watershed Restoration Project Manager to coordinate the project. “We hope to apply what we are learning to the Appalachian region.”

Julia is contacting landowners in the Maumee River Watershed, which flows into Lake Erie.

“We’ll be constructing wetlands or riparian buffers to capture some of the nutrients and sediment that are causing problems,” she says. “We have hundreds of potential properties identified, and we’re talking to landowners to see if this project can work for their property. A big focus of this project is to do some of this work on marginal or low producing parts of agricultural lands. It doesn’t have to represent a loss of productivity and could actually be an alternative source of revenue.”

Landowners can enter parts of their property into a conservation easement, or they could sell it to a land trust or other entity.

“The history of this region is very interesting,” Julia says. “It used to be a formidable swamp. When it was settled and converted to agriculture, tile systems were installed to drain the land. There was a whole economy around it, with tile factories emerging throughout the region. Now, we’re striving to restore a small percentage of those original wetlands into this landscape that’s been so dramatically transformed.”

This project would not have been possible without a partnership with Civil & Environmental Consultants (CEC) and Water & Land Solutions (WLS). The project partners all play an important role — Rural Action is coordinating the project and leading community engagement, CEC is leading design and GIS targeting, and WLS is highly experienced with developing landowner agreements that will make project implementation possible.

In 2022, the project is focusing on landowner outreach, site selection, and conceptual design development. Project engineering, permitting, and construction are expected to occur in 2023-24.

“We’ll be determining phosphorus loading off these properties, the acres of wetland constructed, and the number of trees planted,” Julia says. “This project is expected to benefit quite a few threatened and highly valued plant and animal species, not to mention the public health and economic benefits that come with improved water quality.”

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