July 24, 2008

Wetlands Job Baffles Wisconsin Department of Transportation

By Sean Ryan

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation scoured more than 500 square miles to find property to offset wetlands losses caused by the Interstate 94 reconstruction.

It came up empty.

The expansion of the main corridor of I-94 from Milwaukee County south to the Illinois border will pave roughly 50 acres of wetlands. Another 26 acres will be paved for new interchanges in Racine and Kenosha counties.

WisDOT tried to find property where it could restore wetlands in the watersheds surrounding the highway but was unsuccessful, said Don Berghammer, WisDOT southeast region supervisor of environment, utility and railroad services. It's negotiating to buy a farm that partially crosses into the Fox River watershed, which flows into the highway project.

"Everybody wanted to do the best that we could to make sure that we could find a mitigation site nearby," he said. "We checked all leads."

The state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed off on the proposal to buy the farm to compensate for lost wetlands. The DNR also searched for property closer to I-94 without success, Berghammer said.

Creating new wetlands within the same watershed as a project contributes to water cleanliness by filtering impurities out of rainwater as it soaks into the ground.

A big challenge with finding land to restore to wetlands near the I-94 project is the number of airports in the area. Wetlands attract birds, and birds and planes don't mix, so much of the land is not suitable, Berghammer said. Many owners of suitable land didn't want to sell, and WisDOT refuses to force such sales using eminent domain, he said.

The agency is still calling the owners of one site to see if they'll change their minds and sell, Berghammer said.

WisDOT is the only state agency that gets involved in wetland- mitigation efforts, and it has roughly 30 land banks around the state that it uses for its projects, said Dave Siebert, director of the DNR Office of Energy. There also are three or four privately owned wetland banks, he said.

It will take time for WisDOT to acquire the farm and longer to convert it back into a wetland. In the meantime, WisDOT will dedicate acreage from its Jacobson wetland bank in Whitewater so it can continue with the highway project, Berghammer said.

WisDOT uses wetland acres almost like money in bank accounts. Once the new wetland is created, its acres will restore the credits taken out of the Jacobson wetland bank.

But Berghammer is pushing for restoration closer to the project.

"We're getting into the watershed," he said. "We're not going to settle for the Jacobson site."

A lot of agricultural properties were wetlands before farmers drained them. To restore them, WisDOT usually breaks the clay drainage tiles that farmers laid to suck water out of the ground and channel it into ditches. Once the ground begins retaining moisture again, WisDOT plants native grasses and flowers.

"Some people would say we're creating wetlands," Berghammer said. "But we're really just restoring them."

Originally published by Sean Ryan.

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