Lush vegetation frames a pond and surrounding wetlands.
Kentucky Wetlands Lush vegetation frames a pond and surrounding wetlands in Kentucky's Big Rivers Corridor. © Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy

Stories in Kentucky

Wetland Monitoring Study

We're quantifying the effects of our restoration work.

This page was updated on December 16, 2020.

Monitoring Our Progress

A five-year, $4.36 million study funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will monitor the wildlife benefits and water-quality effects of wetland restoration in western Kentucky. Launched in June 2018, the study is being led by NRCS and The Nature Conservancy. Murray State University will implement the monitoring work.

“We work with farmers to take frequently flooded land out of agricultural production, plant native trees in the area, and where possible, restore the hydrology,” says Shelly Morris, TNC’s director of floodplain strategies for the Kentucky chapter. “In some cases, we plug ditches that were installed decades ago to drain the land or install levees to retain water seasonally. After all this work, we want to know the impact we’re having on reducing nutrient pollution.”  

Aerial view looking down on a brown pond surrounded by green vegetation with streams and channels criss-crossing it.
Western Kentucky wetland A wetland in western Kentucky © Mike Wilkinson

According to Morris, an intact floodplain holds water after a flood event and slowly lets it drain back to the river. Many wetlands within the Mississippi River floodplain, however, have been ditched and cleared to allow for farming and development. As a result, water quickly runs off the land, taking excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediments into the river. This nutrient pollution makes its way down the river all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, where it contributes to a dead zone—a low oxygen zone nearly devoid of life—that is now the size of New Jersey.

Healthy Floodplains Reduce Pollution

Conservation organizations have worked for years to restore wetlands so the land can hold water longer, reducing the nutrient pollution going into the Mississippi River.

“We are excited about this project, not only because we are breaking new ground in terms of restoration monitoring, but because our results will aid the planning of future restoration efforts here in Kentucky and throughout the Mississippi River basin,” said Howard Whiteman, a professor in Murray State University’s biological sciences department and director of the Watershed Studies Institute. 

The monitoring project will study the restored wetlands’ potential to reduce nutrient pollution and will measure water and soil quality. Murray State University will also look at the wildlife impacts of these restoration efforts. Clarifying the effects of restoration will help conservation groups conduct better restoration in the future and may help secure funding for future projects.

Collaborating Across State Lines

The monitoring project recently added several new partners from TNC’s Louisiana chapter.

“We have four universities and two dozen students, including undergraduate, Masters, and Ph.D. students,” Morris says. “They’re asking so many research questions. At the end of the day we need this to be a cohesive body of work. We have people at TNC who specialize in this type of project synthesis.”

The Kentucky chapter needed more expertise at a time when the Louisiana chapter was struggling with budget constraints. Dr. Bryan Piazza, Joe Baustian, and Dave Harlan of the Louisiana chapter were the right people for the job, and bringing them on board was a way to share resources to help TNC colleagues rather than outsourcing the work.

Piazza, director of freshwater and marine science for the Louisiana chapter, also directs the science team of TNC’s Mississippi River Basin whole system project (MsB). “He is there at every conversation with his academic background to inform our decisions,” Morris says. “Being head of the MsB science team, he is working on how to expand this project and get more of this science out into the basin.”

Baustian is doing a gap analysis, which is an inquiry into possible gaps in the data sets and questions the project is asking. Harlan is looking at things spatially, searching for spatial trends in the data.

Morris has also brought Piazza and Baustian into the Dogtooth Bend project, an ongoing Illinois wetland restoration project. “It all comes down to us trying to share resources and knowledge and experience, regardless of state lines,” Morris says. “We’re getting the right people on the right projects.”