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Archive for Monday, May 3, 1999

MANMADE WETLANDS PROJECT THRIVING

May 3, 1999

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Five years later, a Douglas County bean field has been returned to something approximating its original, wetlands status.

Even with as much time as he has spent trying to grow them, Kelly Kindscher seems reckless with the plants in the Santa Fe Wetlands.

On a recent visit to the former bean field, the Kansas University biologist plucked one of the plants from the ankle-deep water at his feet and held it up for examination.

Then he plunked it back into the mud, securing it with firm step from his rubber boot.

"It will grow," he said.

He should know. Kindscher has been following that basic routine for five years, picking up plants from one place, putting them down in a 17-acre property northeast of 35th and Haskell, and expecting them to grow.

Many of them do, and Kindscher and doctoral student Alexandra Fraser have compiled their final report on the resulting manmade wetlands.

The results show a property that now meets the legal wetlands definition: wet for at least two weeks each year with wetlands soil and wetlands plants.

"Legally and ecologically this is a wetlands," Fraser said.

The Santa Fe Wetlands was created as part of the effort to build the South Lawrence Trafficway, a road project envisioned as a loop around the south side of Lawrence, linking Kansas Highway 10, U.S. Highway 59 and Interstate 70.

The eastern half of that project has yet to be completed, but the three routes being considered would all take some portion of the Baker Wetlands, which include about 500 acres of wetlands and are designated as a National Natural Landmark.

The federal Clean Water Act demands replacement of any wetlands acres taken by a public project.

The report by Kindscher and Fraser says that, technically, that has been done.

It doesn't mean the Santa Fe Wetlands are an ecological equal to the Baker Wetlands across the road, particularly to the 50 acres that were never farmed.

"We don't have the technical skills at this point to truly recreate the natural community," Kindscher said.

It is a question of quality, Kindscher said. Though he is proud of the Santa Fe Wetlands, he knows they aren't as stable or as valuable ecologically as the Baker Wetlands.

They may never be, Kindscher said.

That is part of the reason Baker biologist Roger Boyd advocates a two-for-one replacement of natural wetlands, two acres of created wetlands for every lost acre of natural wetlands.

Regulations have been evolving over the last 15 years as federal and state laws have put more pressure on themselves and others to preserve wetlands and natural habitat.

The backers of the South Lawrence Trafficway have been asked to hit something of a moving target since the mid-1980s, said Daniel VanPetten, manager of environmental assessment section of HNTB, the engineering firm that did the original design of the wetlands.

"As this project goes along, you have additional things you have to be aware of," VanPetten said.

The Santa Fe project was begun with the idea it would address a state requirement for preservation of habitat for the state threatened northern crayfish frog. But since the project began, the frog has been taken off the threatened list.

In the meantime, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has firmed up its own mitigation requirements, demanding replacement of wetlands.

Luckily the Santa Fe Wetlands fit both requirements.

Broken down, it was a pretty simple recipe: Turn the drainage ditches into berms, dig a couple shallow ponds, add water and plants, and wait.

Seeds were scattered throughout the area, and tree-planting equipment was used to import 107 plugs of plants and dirt from Haskell property along 31st Street. Those dense mats have grown from two feet to 13 feet across.

There are fish and crayfish in the ponds. Birds and muskrats pass through.

Kindscher, who has studied the other examples of wetlands mitigation in Kansas, confidently calls the Santa Fe Wetlands the best created wetlands in the state.

But Kindscher is the first to admit the area isn't an equal to the Baker Wetlands.

The plant species now number 77, a fraction of the estimated 300 in the Baker Wetlands.

And the mix of plants includes mostly annuals that grow from seeds each spring.

That makes for a large variation in plants each year, depending on weather.

The Baker Wetlands area, on the other hand, has a stable foundation of perennials that vary little from year to year.

Baker's Boyd said he was skeptical when the project began, but he has been pleasantly surprised by Kindscher's results.

"It does definitely add value to the entire area," Boyd said.

But Boyd said the small size and isolation of the Santa Fe property will always work against it.

Kindscher said that the Santa Fe Wetlands will continue to improve with more plants and animals.

And it has effectively raised the bar for other wetlands projects in the state, which, in the past, have been as rudimentary as abandoned borrow pits.

"Now this will become the model for other projects," Kindscher said.

-- Kendrick Blackwood's phone message number is 832-7221. His e-mail address is kblackwood@ljworld.com.

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