Could restoring prairie grasses improve water quality and reduce flooding?

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

KIRKSVILLE,  MO (KTVI) - Scientists from the University of Missouri are conducting extensive research on a farm northwest of Kirksville to see if restoring some of the state’s native prairie grasses could dramatically improve the health of our waterways and reduce the magnitude of river flooding in the future.

Native plants on the Missouri plains have been largely removed over the past 200 years, replaced with farmland, a practice that over the decades has had many serious and unforeseen consequences.

“The roots of the warm season plants go five to 15 feet deep.  That’s extremely significant for the activity and the vigor of a field,” says Betty Grace of the Missouri Prairie Foundation.  Every year roughly 30% of those plants die, but their roots remain, acting as a sponge for water that percolates down after a heavy rain.  While new roots from new plants grown deep into the soil and mix with the old resulting in soil that is extremely efficient at absorbing runoff.

“You’ve got soil that is capable of retaining lots of water,” says Grace.

Without those native plants and their deep roots, heavy rain quickly turns to run-off resulting in rapid rises in creeks, streams and rivers.  Deep roots of native prairie grasses also help to filter chemicals and other impurities from the water that would otherwise flow into the rivers and then down into the Gulf of Mexico.

Dr. Shibu Jobes is a research scientist with the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri.  He leads a team of scientists looking into the benefits of restoring some of Missouri’s native prairie.

“If you have prairies restored or reestablished in critical landscape positions over the landscape, chances are we will have massive absorption of storm water into the soil and less water getting into streams and rivers avoiding or reducing the threats of flooding.  If you have runoff, it’s not just the soil you are losing along with the water; it’s all the chemicals - like the nutrients - like the pesticides.  Eventually all the water will reach the Gulf of Mexico and it creates massive hypoxic zones killing fish and all sorts of marine life.”

Early results are positive.  Some of the unofficial stats show a restored prairie can keep as much as 6" to 8" of rainfall from reaching creeks and rivers.  The one big negative is the cost to farmers and landowners.  That is where Rudi Roeslein comes into the story.  He and his son own the farm where the research is being conducted.  They are hoping to find ways to make growing and harvesting of prairie grass profitable for farmers.

“I think all farmers tend to be conservationist,” says Roeslein.

“They have kids to raise and they have college to pay for and tractors and equipment to pay for.  So they use as much of their land as much as they can to produce commodities that are currently on the market place.”

One of the most promising possibilities being investigated the combining of prairie grass with pig manure.  As the mixture decomposes, the resulting gas can be captured and purified resulting in usable natural gas.  This gas can then be harvested and sold for a profit to gas companies.

The research on the farm is expected to take several years.

Links: