Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Bald Eagles and blue heron: Public asked to support Pine township wetland facing destruction

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By LILY REX

A bird watcher counted 40 blue herons gathered there at one time. On a day last winter, five bald eagles in different stages of development could be seen on the property. One to three pairs of sandhill cranes have consistently nested there for several years. Jim Phares has even found traces of the endangered eastern massasauga rattlesnake on his restored wetland at Burdick Road and C.R. 575 E in Pine Township.

Phares, a lifelong outdoorsman, taxidermist, and son of a self-taught naturalist, began restoring the wetland on his 42-acre property with the help of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service nearly 30 years ago. In 2011, it was entered into the Wetland Reserve Program, under the purview of the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

Phares said he’s spent more time than anyone could imagine maintaining the property--mowing, clearing fallen trees and beaver dams, unplugging culverts, planting native species, controlling invasives, and planting new trees and prairie grasses----because he loves wildlife and grew up with stories of what has been lost here in Northern Indiana.

“I had family here when the Grand Kankakee Marsh and all that was still here. I had family in Porter County in the 1800s, when it was still wilderness,” Phares said. For a moment he trailed off in thought. “To think that years ago it was ‘let’s conquer nature’ instead of live with it...”

Due to new regulations and storm water systems, the fate of Phares’ wetland will be up for debate at the next meeting of the Porter County Storm Water Advisory Board.

Phares said a lot more water has been coming into the system on his property in the last few years. That, along with wear and tear, has caused a control structure that regulates the volume of water feeding into his marsh to fail. The NRCS needs to build a new one that can handle more water.

According to Phares, his neighbors have historically been okay with some runoff from his property crossing over onto theirs, and some of his neighbors are even in the process of restoring their own wetlands as well, but the NRCS says new policy doesn’t allow them to install a control structure that lets water out onto other properties, even with permission from the affected landowners. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that his property is home to a lot of beavers that create blockages in Bedenkoff ditch and nearby culverts, causing runoff to flow over C.R. 575 E instead of under it.

Bedenkoff ditch is a county-regulated drain bisecting Phares’ property. The county has an easement that extends 75 feet on either side of it. Near the south boundary of the County’s easement, the NRCS conservation easement begins. The work the NRCS wants to do on the new control structure is under the County’s purview, as the structure will be on the ditch. Phares said the control structure would have to be set an elevation lower than or equal to the lowest culvert that feeds the marsh--which is a culvert feeding Bedenkoff ditch constructed years after his restoration on the wetland started.

The new culvert that must serve as a guide for the control structure, running under C.R. 575 E, is nearly nine inches lower than the next lowest culvert. Nine inches is a big difference, as Phares said the marsh is essentially “20 acres of knee deep water.” The lowest culvert is also lower than any part of the marsh, so using it as the cutoff line for the control structure would drain the marsh almost entirely, reducing Phares carefully managed wetland habitat by up to 90 percent. The NRCS has told Phares that it could excavate parts of the marsh to help mitigate this problem, but it wouldn’t stop much of the reduction.

Two other solutions exist--the issues up for debate at the County level. The County could either agree to raise the road and the culvert to meet the correct elevation to maintain the average water level in Phares’ marsh, or it could agree to have an elbow-shaped tailpiece added to the low culvert that would bring the outflow up to the right elevation.

Executive Director of the Izaak Walton League, Porter County chapter, Annette Hansen wrote in an email to the Chesterton Tribune that Phares’ property is bordered to the north and south by Izaak Walton property that would also see an imbalance in the future if Phares’ wetland is reduced. She also wrote that such a dramatic reduction “would be a devastating blow to Phares’ act of conservation and to the public that enjoys these conserved lands for outdoor recreation and appreciation of native species.”

Hansen urged the public to show up on Monday to show support for maintaining Phares’ Wetland. “We just want supporters in the audience to show that wetlands are important to our community. They don’t even have to raise their hands,” Hansen said.

Phares hopes that he can continue doing his part to preserve the wetland habitat that is a small vestige of the sprawling swamps and marshes that once enveloped most of this area. “These areas are important because a lot of them have disappeared,” he said. “It’s small, but it’s very important. Every little bit we can keep helps.” His travels as a hunter have also influenced his perspective on water stewardship: “I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa, where water is precious, and here we can’t get rid of it fast enough.”

The Storm Water Advisory Board meeting will be held at 5 p.m. on Monday, June 11, in suite 205 of the Porter County Administration Building, 155 Indiana Avenue in Valparaiso.

 

 

 

 

Posted 6/8/2018

 

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

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