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LEXINGTON — A saturated buffer system installed at the Illinois State University Farm is designed to limit nitrogen/nitrate runoff into the state's waterways, but those involved say it has other benefits, too.

Among the additional benefits cited were the potential of improved crop yield, increased wildlife habitat and educational opportunities.

The project is a joint effort of ISU and The Nature Conservancy.

Existing 8-inch field tile was connected to a control box that can divert water runoff to a system of perforated tile that runs parallel to Turkey Creek, said farm manager Jason Lindbom. Gates in the control box control the flow.

Turkey Creek feeds into the Mackinaw River, which flows into the Illinois River, eventually running into the Mississippi River.

Mary Lemke, Nature Conservancy aquatic ecologist, explained that the water slowly seeps into the ground through the perforated tile before entering the creek.

“Because of the nature of the soil, it has a lot of organic matter which is habitat for microbes,” said Lemke. “These remove the nitrates.”

Rob Rhykerd, professor and chair of ISU's agriculture department, said, “A lot of the runoff from farms is flowing into the Mississippi and creating a 'dead zone' in the Gulf” of Mexico.

Illinois alone contributes 10 percent to 17 percent of the nitrogen that eventually flows into the gulf, according to figures from the U.S. Geological Survey.

With buffer systems like the one installed at ISU and other conservation and management practices, “we can chip away at that,” said Rhykerd.

ISU has a 60-foot wide buffer the runs for 1,000 feet on either side of the control box. The control box and perforated tile were installed in one afternoon in mid-June. Lindbom said millet was planted to control erosion and more planting will be done this fall.

The Nature Conservancy had a training session attended by landowners, farmers, drainage tile contractors and representatives of soil and water conservations districts that included a visit to University Farm to watch installation of the system.

Representatives of Pheasants Forever also participated in the field day, encouraging planting of native plants in the buffer area to create habitat for pheasants and quail, said Lemke.

Installing a saturated buffer system like the one at ISU costs about $3,000 to $6,000, she said. However, if land is involved in a farm bill program, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, the project could be eligible for up to 90 percent in cost-sharing, Lemke added.

“If they already have a buffer strip like this, it's easy to retrofit,” she said.

Lindbom said, “Another benefit of these (control) boxes is they can hold the water back in summer,” but the gates can be opened in the spring to dry out fields.

Being able to better manage water flow can improve yields, according to Rhykerd.

The saturated buffer project “not only does good for the environment, it also pays off at harvest time,” said Rhykerd. “Other than the small cost of installation and a little down time, there's really not a downside.”

Lemke agreed.

“With weather so unpredictable, having something like this to manage the water can make crops more resilient,” she said.

Others interested in undertaking a similar project can contact their area's U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency or National Resources Conservation Service office, said Lemke.

Rhykerd also suggested people schedule a visit to see ISU's system.

“Come take a look at it. That's the whole point – to show it off,” he said.

Rhykerd considers the saturated buffer project “a great educational opportunity,” not only for ISU students but anyone who visits the farm for field days or tours.

In addition, “it could be a field site for research in the future,” he said.

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Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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