Crops will make way for milkweed and marshes on an expanse of bottomland farm fields if all goes as Gary Eberhardt plans.
Eberhardt, a St. Louis attorney, owns 72 acres in northeastern Granite City between Lake Drive and the Alton & Southern railroad tracks. He’s proposed transforming the land into a wetland mitigation bank — the federal government’s method for replacing wetlands affected by development.
“The idea is that the area will become a natural habitat,” he said. “The whole area is intended to be indigenous to the waterfowl, to birds, to caterpillars, to butterflies, to frogs — all sorts of aquatic-type creatures that would live in marshy areas.”
The project is in the early stages. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District oversees the approval process of mitigation banks within the district, working with state and federal agencies on evaluating proposals.
If the corps authorizes the bank, which Eberhardt anticipates will be later this month, construction will begin in November or December. First, earthen berms will be built around the perimeter and the ground will be leveled. Next, native trees, shrubs and grasses will be planted.
Once the planting work is done, the corps requires a 5-year monitoring period to ensure the wetlands are achieving their ecological mission. For example, engineers dig wells to determine soil moisture. Eberhardt’s engineering consultant is Tetra Tech in Collinsville.
“This project has to meet the Corps of Engineers’ pretty stringent standards for a 5-year period of time,” Eberhardt said. “It’s a long-term project.”
Danny McClendon, chief of the St. Louis corps’ regulatory branch, said the principle of mitigation banks is zero net loss of wetlands, which provide water purification, wildlife habitat and flood protection, among other benefits.
When a developer’s project will affect a wetlands, they have to either replace it by creating their own wetlands, or buy credits through a mitigation bank. The ratio of acres to credits varies, depending on the value of the wetlands. In the St. Louis district, the cost for one credit, or one acre, is $25,000 to $35,000. In states with more development affecting a higher percentage of wetlands, like Florida, the price can soar to $400,000 per credit.
“Most businesses aren’t in the business of owning wetlands, so it’s much easier for them to purchase a credit,” McClendon said.
The St. Louis district has 29 mitigation sites, including 7 active banks in Illinois. Their lifespans depend on how quickly they sell their credits. The 40-acre Madison County Mitigation Bank, for example, was established 12 years ago and is still selling credits.
“Bankers take a risk … because we don’t guarantee that they’ll get clients,” McClendon said. “It’s kind of market-driven.”
The one characteristic the banks share is that once all the credits are sold, they are legally required to stay a wetlands forever. Owners can use them for outdoor recreation but can’t replant them with crops, build athletic fields or do anything else in violation of the land deed. Sometimes, the banks are sold to conservation groups for use as public parks. The eventual ownership of the Eberhardt bank will go to Granite City, which has approved a resolution requiring a $55,235 endowment from Eberhardt Wetlands Bank LLC, the site’s legal owner. The endowment complements other financial incentives for the city, including $15,750 for two rights of way and $57,000 for a stockpile of fill dirt.
“The city is deeply involved, in a lot of respects,” Eberhardt said.
Mayor Ed Hagnauer said the wetlands will act as water-holding site during heavy rain.
“They’ve always had water issues out there,” he said.
Eberhardt agreed the project will provide flood relief.
“(The site) will act like a stormwater detention basin when there are large rain events,” he said. “The water that would normally flow off the farmer’s field into the surrounding residential areas and into Long Lake will now be absorbed partially by the ground and released over a longer period of time.”
Despite the name, most of the year the wetlands will be dry. Only a small part of the land is required to be water-covered for a brief period during the year.
“A wetlands area doesn’t mean standing water,” Eberhardt said. “It will normally be dry most of the year unless there’s a very large rain event.”
Information about wetlands banks is available on the corps’ website at ht.ly/oTUm303QGBW.