Creating new wetlands is complicated work. According to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, it isn't even always successful.
That's why Lawrence residents should be cautious about the state's proposal to build more than 400 acres of new wetlands to replace any in the Baker Wetlands destroyed by completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway, local environmentalists say.
"People look at mitigation as a panacea to satisfy ecologists, environmentalists and the public, as well as to satisfy development pressures," said Todd Aschenbach, a doctoral student at Kansas University's biological survey, conservation chair of the local Sierra Club and a former Chicago wetlands consultant.
"The track record of mitigation in this country hasn't been that successful," he said. "How are we supposed to believe it will work in Douglas County?"
Mike Rees, the Kansas Department of Transportation's point man on the SLT, agrees to a point.
"I think the record of mitigation is a bit spotty," he said. "Not all of it does work. I don't think that's a reason to say it won't work."
A route for the SLT has been sought since 1985. The western portion, swinging from U.S. Highway 40 west of the city to U.S. Highway 59 on the south, was completed in the late 1990s. The remainder, which would connect that road to Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence, has gone unfinished due in large part to environmental concerns.
KDOT has tried to ease those concerns with its offer to build the new wetlands (some of which would be required by law) along with an environmental education center.
A June report by a National Academy of Sciences panel said such efforts don't have a proven record.
"The committee found that some required mitigation projects are never undertaken or are not completed," the scientists wrote. "Of those completed, most are not fully evaluated, and the ones that are, the committee and other scientists found shortcomings compared to nearby natural wetlands."
The problem, Aschenbach said, is wetlands science is relatively young.
"It's pretty easy to create a wetlands in a regulatory sense, as far as the ingredients: soils, water and plants," he said. "But wetlands in this part of the area have been part of the landscape for 10,000 years, since the glaciers went through. It's sort of ludicrous to assume you can replace something that's been 10,000 years in the making with something in a year or five years."
"My question is, 'How come the Santa Fe mitigation site appears to be prospering?" he said. "I thought that was deemed to be an acceptable recreation of the wetlands."
The Santa Fe Wetlands were created by KU in the early 1990s on 17-acre property northeast of 35th and Haskell as part of an earlier SLT wetlands mitigation effort. KU scientists say the property now meets the legal definition of wetlands, but they also say it isn't as biologically diverse as natural wetlands.
"There are intricacies in (a wetlands) system that are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate," Aschenbach said.
Sharon Ashworth, another KU doctoral student and conservation chair for the local Audubon Society, said there is another problem with the mitigation proposal: It isn't specific enough.
She said the proposal should include details for who monitors the wetlands, who is responsible for the mitigation efforts and who defines the success of those efforts.
"These are the kinds of details we don't have, and these details are critical," she said.
Again, Rees offered little argument.
"I would agree with that comment," he said. "We're in the process of answering all those questions."
Some of the heavy lifting on that count will be done by a special committee at Baldwin's Baker University, which owns the wetlands. Roger Boyd, Baker's biology chair and a member of the committee, said more attention is being focused on possible alignments for the SLT.
"I'm not so concerned about their concerns on the quality of the wetlands," Boyd said. "Whatever is renovated or mitigated will eventually be good wetlands. It's just going to take time."
Ashworth, however, questioned the necessity.
"The critical part is, we're replacing something that's already existing," she said.
"We can create or restore a wetland," she said. "But the question is, does it adequately compensate for what is lost?"