Assets growing in Rock River Valley wetland bank

March 02, 2012 at 10:22 PM

ROCKFORD — A new bank in the Rock River Valley is filling up with wildflowers and grass, not coins and currency.

The wetland bank, as it’s called, is 82 acres of farmland in southeast Winnebago County that’s being transformed into wetland, a valuable commodity that provides habitat for plants and animals while filtering pollutants from the soil before it reaches rivers, streams and groundwater sources.

The Winnebago County Forest Preserve District has been in talks since 2000 to acquire and manage this land along River Road once it is a fully established wetland and its land credits are sold to developers. The district won’t pay for the land. Rather, it will be paid to acquire it.

“We’re getting the land, but we’re also getting a small amount of endowment money to maintain the land, which makes it that much better,” said Randy Olson, president of the district’s board of commissioners.

Officials say acquiring the wetland bank is aligned with the district’s philosophy of protecting natural lands, including man-made wetlands.

Here’s how wetland banking works: Developers who disturb a wetland when building a subdivision, strip mall or any other type of project are required by law to restore or create wetland elsewhere. Because it’s often costly and time-consuming to design and build wetlands, many developers buy wetland credits to fulfill the mitigation requirement.

A “banker,” in this case Northern Illinois Wetland, builds wetlands and sells the credits to developers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determines how many credits a developer must purchase.

The corps has approved Northern Illinois Wetland to develop the wetland bank along River Road, which serves watersheds in Boone, Ogle, Winnebago and DeKalb counties.

Development of 32 acres of this 82-acre plot is under way. Planting was done last spring and fall, but it will take three to five years for the wetland to be fully established.

More than ‘a mosquito hole’
So far, the wetland bank is home to 38 types of native grasses, sedges and wildflowers, including iris, aster, different species of milkweed and penstemon. The rest of the land will be developed as the need for more wetland credits arises.

“Wetland habitats are some of the most diverse habitats in the world,” said John Betker of the Corps of Engineers. “They become homes for certain life stages of organisms where they depend wholly or partly on wetlands.”

Wetlands are more valuable today because so many have been lost to agriculture and development, Betker said.

“It’s difficult for humans sometimes to understand how important they are, they feel they’re just a mosquito hole,” he said. “They might be that, but they’re very, very important for the health of the Earth.”

Wetlands protect water quality by filtering out pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus, which are used in farming, before they enter the water stream, said Rebecca Olson, owner of Olson Ecological Solutions, which is developing the wetland for Northern Illinois Wetland. Wetlands can also help mitigate flooding, she said.

“There are more and more places where we’re not allowing water to soak in. Parking lots, driveways, roads, rooftops. That water all has to go somewhere,” she said. “We are losing more of that, and flooding has become a real issue that municipalities have to deal with. This is one solution.”

Bank demand slows
It could be years before the Forest Preserve District assumes ownership of the River Road wetland bank.

Talks between Northern Illinois Wetland and the district began in 2000. But the district won’t acquire the property until it is a fully established wetland and all credits have been sold. It’s unclear how soon that will happen. Development has slowed in recent years, and so has demand for wetland banks.

The district would likely maintain the wetland bank as a natural area with no public access. It couldn’t become a meaningful extension of Deer Run Forest Preserve, which lies east of River Road, unless the district were to acquire additional adjacent private land. 

The Northern Illinois Wetland bank is one of three in the area. A Rosemont company built a wetland along the banks of Kilbuck Creek near Illinois 251 in the late 1990s. The DeKalb County Forest Preserve has operated a 57-acre wetland bank since 1997 within Afton Forest Preserve in DeKalb County, rolling the money it earns from credits sold back into land acquisition efforts.

“It’s self-perpetuating. It generates enough money to keep it afloat,” Betker said.

That’s not a likely option for the Winnebago County district because there isn’t enough development in the area to necessitate another bank, Betker said. The three banks in the area are already competing for the same dollar.

But while demand slowed after its initial proposal in 2000, Rick Hoffman of Hoffman Realty and Northern Illinois Wetland says interest has started to pick up lately.

“It was a matter of economics before. We didn’t want to start it until we had enough funds,” he said. “But now, with the interest being shown, we’re willing to take that risk.”

Reach staff writer Kevin Haas at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 815-987-1410.