Donald Hey: wetland warrior

(Photo by Rebekah Raleigh)

Donald Hey, CE’63, executive director of Wetlands Research Inc. in Wadsworth, Ill., is passionate about proving the effectiveness, sustainability and economic efficiency of using restored wetlands for water quality management and flood control. He believes wetlands are the answer because they’re good for conservation and the economy alike.

Crusade: Donald Hey, CE’63, executive director of Wetlands Research Inc. in Wadsworth, Ill., is passionate about proving the effectiveness, sustainability and economic efficiency of using restored wetlands for water quality management and flood control. He believes wetlands are the answer because they’re good for conservation and the economy alike.

The problem: Over the past 200 years, the loss of more than 70 million acres of wetlands in the Mississippi River Basin has caused poor water quality, increased water pollution and flood damage, and reduced wildlife habitat and biodiversity, Hey says. “Water used to sit on the ground between eight and 20 days after it rained or snow melted. Now it is gone in less than 24 hours due to drain tiles, agricultural outlet ditches, storm sewers, and canalized streams and rivers.”

The solution: “Wetlands are a natural solution for flood water storage,” Hey says. They will also remove contaminants like nitrogen and pharmaceuticals, and sequester phosphorous and mercury now contaminating our water resources. “Aquatic plants absorb the contaminants, die and sink below the surface of the water where they become peat,” Hey explains. “As long as we don’t try to use the newly formed peat for animal feed or human consumption, we are safe.”

Next big thing: Hey hopes to create a riverine national park — a 14-million-acre wetland restoration project in the upper Mississippi River floodplains.

His plan: Convince farmers in the basin to give up growing commodity crops like corn and soybeans, and convert their fields to wetlands, creating what he calls a “nutrient farm.” Land owners participating in the riverine national park would keep their land, build trails and lodges, and collect fees for hunting, fishing and camping. At the same time, the owners would produce and sell other ecosystem services: water quality credits, flood water storage and carbon sequestration. These services would generate three to four times the income that the landowners now earn from raising livestock or growing commodity crops, Hey says. “We have a lot of work to do to get our lives in balance with nature but we can do it. That’s what I’m working for.”

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