GALLERY: Newest CREP site offers look at wetland development

By Kate Hayden,

There’s a lot of dirt being moved behind Dean and Linda Tjaden’s cabin.

On a recent day, the two took an ATV ride around the property with a Press reporter and an exuberant little black dog named Cole, who bounded around the site’s progress.

They aren’t the first, but the Tjadens are the most recent example of Floyd County landowners turning property back into wetlands with the help of the state.

They have leased 21 acres to the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a joint effort between the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the USDA Farm Service Agency.

The wetlands are designed to remove nitrate from tile-drainage water among crops. Removing nitrate in the wetlands slows the flow of nutrients down major waterways and into the Gulf of Mexico, where nutrient overflow feeds hypoxia, or “dead zones,” off the coast of Louisiana.

The CREP effort is part of Iowa’s strategy to cut down nutrients washing out of farmland into water sources. More than 70 CREP wetlands have been installed in the state, but the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance estimates that the state needs 7,000 to fully impact the amount of nitrogen washed from soil into waterways.

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The future wetlands are located behind a cabin and farm pond built by Dean and Linda in 2004.

Property eligible for CREP has to meet multiple criteria for the state — CREP is only available to 37 counties in north and central Iowa (Floyd is on the eastern border of eligible counties), and a CREP location must have between 500 and 4,000 acres of watershed that feeds into the wetland, among other specifications.

The wetlands receive all that watershed runoff through the agricultural tile drains. Tile is modified or reconstructed to direct drainage into the CREP wetlands, which filters out the nitrates that create healthy, native wetland habitats.

The wetlands require some maintenance — project managers recommend burning brush every five years to landowners — and CREP staff will continue monitoring project sites for five years after completion.

“We didn’t pursue it or anything, they literally came to us. … When they were looking for just the right location to develop these wetlands, they had done some (aerial) shots of our wetland area and said, ‘We think that you’ve got a perfect spot here for us to develop one,’” Linda said.

The news came from CREP Field Coordinator Brandon Dittman in a letter to the Tjadens four years ago — which sat overlooked for a few weeks before Dean opened the envelope.

“When he told me what it was, I really got excited, and I said, ‘We need to talk to this guy,’” Linda recalled.

After visiting the Tjadens and taking samples of the property, IDALS officials made the land a priority for CREP site funds as soon as they were available.

“There’s people that want these. … Just because you want one doesn’t mean you’re going to get one, because it has to fit their design criteria,” Dean said.

Construction of CREP wetlands costs more than $250,000, and landowners receive annual payments for up to 15 years. Easements on the land are for a minimum of 30 years. The Tjadens agreed to permanent easements on their property.

“You can have the great ideas and find the most perfect spot, but if there’s no funding for it, it won’t happen either,” Linda said.

“That’s part of why it’s taken ours four years. They couldn’t get funding.”

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Before contractors broke ground on the Tjaden project, Floyd County already had 11 other CREP wetland projects in the region — out of 83 CREP wetlands in Iowa. The next highest amount of CREP in a county is Boone County, with six CREP wetlands.

The Tjaden easement is 21 acres taken out of farmland production — but it will affect much more land in the watershed. Six and a half acres of water will accept drainage from 695 acres of land in the watershed.

The Tjadens also took the option to privately pay for one acre of water 14 feet deep, creating a fishing habitat for their family to enjoy.

The CREP wetland might assist some flood control in the Washington School Watershed — Hyers Creek begins on the Tjaden’s property, which will now be worked into the CREP wetland.

“They’re really clear about the fact that if it helps flooding that’s great, but that’s not what we’re doing. This is solely for the wetlands and the removal of the nitrates,” Linda said.

Construction began right around June 20. Five to seven contractors and heavy machinery are out on the Tjaden’s easement every day.

After more groundwork closer to the Tjaden’s cabin pond, contractors will seed the whole complex. By Aug. 2, contractors had already cemented land around the complex’s dam, which will slow the force of water as it approaches Floyd County pipes under the highway.

The Tjadens planned to meet with contractors and CREP managers this week as the project work wrapped up. After completion, IDALS will continue monitoring the site’s progress and managing water levels as the new, native grass and landscape grows in.

“They said it’s going to take a few years, but once you have that prairie grass start growing — they said it’ll be the most beautiful spot you can imagine,” Linda said. 

“It’s a dream come true,” Dean said.

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Part of the Tjaden property’s appeal is its visibility — the property is right on a county highway, which helps market the program to drivers, kicking up interest.

But the Tjadens are also sharing their story — they’ve invited participants in the Project AWARE river expedition to visit, and they’ve spoken with reporters from Farm Bureau’s Spokesman and National Geographic.

Linda, a Floyd County supervisor, is a committee member with the Upper Cedar Watershed Management Improvement Authority, and also uses her former campaign Facebook page to post regular updates on the CREP wetland’s progress.

“I’m just proud to say that we’re doing this. I’m glad that we can promote more of this in Floyd County,” Linda said.

The wetlands sit on farm property Dean bought in the 1980s, which he used to expand the Tjaden’s century farm. His father Leonard Tjaden helped lead the Washington School Watershed project in Floyd County during the 1970s — and the Tjadens both say their family commitment to the land remains.

“Farmers in Iowa are working on water quality. We don’t need to have lawsuits from the Des Moines Waterworks telling us how to improve our water,” Dean said. “We will do it.”

“We love the land,” Linda said. “Nothing makes us happier.”