Winning wetlands

EPA transforms farmland into ideal habitat for birds

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A drainage channel was created on a 285 acre parcel of private property in 2007 following the clean up and reduction of metals in the soil left from mining contamination. The area is now deemed a clean feeding habitat for migratory and resident wetland species.

The marshy fields behind Mike Schlepp's homestead are a tundra swan's dream.

Or at least that's the hope.

"We want to make it as attractive as possible, so birds say, 'Let's overnight here!'" said Anne Dailey, an Environmental Protection Agency project manager, waving a hand at the vista of green and blond vegetation at the farm north of Medimont.

A safe feeding ground for waterfowl is the goal of the $3 million Schlepp Ranch Superfund project in the Lower Coeur d'Alene Basin, conducted by the EPA in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited.

The agencies have spent several years transforming 400 acres of private farmland into wetlands, giving waterfowl an alternative to feeding sites contaminated with fatal levels of lead, said Brian Spears, FWS resource contaminants specialist.

"We all realize the basin problem is so huge, we're never going to fix the whole thing," Spears said at a media tour of the site on Tuesday. "But if you can have enough of these, you can draw birds into clean areas and help them get out again."

Although projects like this won't be a part of the proposed $1.34 billion clean-up plan for the Upper Basin, due to the different terrain, Dailey said it demonstrates the potential of remediation and how agencies can successfully pair with landowners.

"The themes are the same," Dailey said.

The pilot project is funded by funds from EPA settlements with Coeur d'Alene Mining, as well as from the Asarco bankruptcy settlement.

The lower basin still boasts 18,000 acres of soil contaminated with metals from a century of Silver Valley mining operations, Dailey said.

Many wetlands in the basin, including Lane Marsh down the road from the Schlepp property, contain lead levels well above 1,800 parts per million, fatal to birds like swans that ingest soil during feeding.

FWS surveys estimate a minimum of 150 dead birds every year in the lower basin, Spears said. Waterfowl deaths have been recorded for decades, he added.

After extensive cleaning and remediation, the Schlepp property can help reduce that, Spears said.

"The first migration after restoration, there was the highest migration of Northern Pintails that we have recorded in the lower basin at this spot," Spears said. "I don't think that any of us expected to see the wetland (develop) so quickly, or for the birds to come back so quickly."

It's less costly to create new wetlands than clean up contaminated ones, Dailey said.

That's why the Schlepp project was conducted as part of the 2002 Record of Decision.

Mike Schlepp contacted the EPA first, saying that he was willing to give the land up for conservation. EPA paid the family $875,000 for land use rights on two fields, where the agency created a perpetual conservation easement.

The land was ideal for the project, Spears said, because it was less contaminated than other properties in the basin. It is also fed by clean water sources, the Robinson and Canary rivers.

Most important, it is separated from the contaminated Coeur d'Alene River by the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes bike trail, preventing the river from flooding and recontaminating the fields.

"We don't want to conduct a remediation only to have it flooded and recontaminated again," Spears said.

Although the land is still the Schlepps' private property, sacrificing the farmland was a big decision, Schlepp said.

"There were numerous discussions between my wife and I around the kitchen table," said Schlepp, whose family has owned and farmed the property since 1979.

But the 56-year-old was looking for less of a workload, he said.

A former board member of the Kootenai-Shoshone Soil and Water Conservation District, he was happy to participate in an environmental project, too.

The agreement was worth the several years of negotiations, Schlepp said.

"We can slow down and enjoy it (life) a little bit more," he said. "It is a real pleasure being able to look out my living room window and see the wildlife utilizing the area."

The EPA started work in 2007 on the Schlepps' east field, formerly used for hay and livestock. The agency scraped off the most contaminated upper levels, predominantly tainted by lead. The soil was deposited in an on-site ditch and capped with untainted soil and vegetation.

The agency also used a selective handling technique, flipping contaminated upper levels of soil beneath the cleaner lower levels.

"Only the first foot to foot and a half has contaminated lead," Dailey explained.

The property was seeded with wetland vegetation by FWS and Ducks Unlimited, coordinating with Coeur d'Alene Basin Natural Resource Trustees. They also installed water control structures and installed a pump station.

Now the property offers a long stretch of tranquil wetland, dotted with tiny ducks and tall clumps of vegetation.

The west field only just went under the same cleanup and seeding in 2009. Still looking barren, it should mirror the other thriving field in a few years, Dailey said.

An armored overflow has been constructed so only clean water will fill the fields during a flood, she added.

Everything is meant to entice waterfowl, Spears said. There are bird perches, and water levels are at the best feeding level.

He realizes there is no way to entice every bird to land there.

"That's the crux of the problem. I always tell people, 'Birds don't read signs too well,'" Spears said, pointing out that unlike fish, birds can't sense contamination. "Our goal is to create the most attractive feeding ground we can."

It is already successful.

Besides large flocks during spring migration, the wetlands are also attracting mammals like elk and moose.

Dailey added that soil on the property that formerly had lead contamination of 2,000 to 3,000 parts per million are now below 530 parts per million.

"That was the project goal," she said.

Lisa Hardy with the Coeur d'Alene Audubon Society said the group considers the site a success.

The group, which bird watches in the area, has seen Avocets at the Schlepp site, she said, which are extremely rare in North Idaho.

A Ducks Unlimited employee reported seeing a breeding pair at the site last year, Hardy added, which she said hasn't been seen in North Idaho in about 100 years.

"The more they can attract the waterfowl out of heavily contaminated areas and onto the Schlepp property, the better the waterfowl are," she said.

Brian Spears, a resource contaminants specialists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, discusses the environmental improvements alongside Anne Dailey, an EPA environmental specialist, regarding the nearly 400 acres of wetlands during a tour Tuesday in the chain lakes area along Highway 3.

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