Watershed works wonders for birds, beasts and people

What better guide to show how wetlands work than the man who builds them?

Watershed works wonders for birds, beasts and people
Tom Oots demonstrates how he measures the turbidity of water samples collected on his property.

What better guide to show how wetlands work than the man who builds them?

Tom Oots trekked through more than 100 acres of his project property on a steamy Monday afternoon this week to show his two companions how he turned bean fields back into prairie wetlands, and how those wetlands make the turbid water of Wolf Creek clear again on its way to the Cedar River.

Oots has been buying and restoring land north of the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center in Mower County since 1972, when he bought a farm and dug out a pond with a backhoe. The 40-year effort has been all about water.

"I have all the water statistics on my laptop," he said as he sat in the backyard of his home on 245th St. in rural Austin.

On a rainy May 26, after an inch of rain had fallen, Oots measured turbidity of 5.6 centimeters at a spot at 560th Avenue where the Wolf River enters his property, meaning it was pretty murky.


But inside the project area, the reading was 87 centimeters, and on 245th Street where the water leaves the property, it read 91.5 centimeters, indicating extremely clear water.

That is more than 15 times as clear as the water flowing into the restored wetlands from the 5,000 acre-drainage of surrounding corn and soybean fields.

"What Tom has been able to do to this water as it leaves his property is nothing short of a miracle," says Jim Stiles, president of the Austin Izaak Walton League.

The wetlands' miracle was easily apparent recently. In spite of drought conditions outside the area, ducks were taking off from the ponds, and muddy areas were visible beyond them.

"Water was still running out of the southwest corner here on the sixth of July," he noted.

Waist-high grasses are surrounded by berms that Oots has patiently built with the heavy equipment he's learned to use. The berms, and the ponds they create, catch water that would otherwise churn down the creek.

"When water goes through grass, it slows down and spreads. It filters out the solids," he explains.

A beaver lodge is in the wetlands.


"This is one of the reasons there's water in this creek," he said. The 45 acres here is also home to deer, otter, mink and muskrats, he added.

On the way out of the area, Oots notes that he hasn't been here for a while.

"I keep away and I try to keep people away in the spring because its nesting time," he said.

Nearby, a 50-acre section of the land is bordered by the highway and Wolf Creek. This is part of a government program, but it's an effort that has been mostly private and personal for Oots.

The Conservation Reserve En hancement Program is a federal-state program to protect environmentally sensitive land. Oots signed up for a 15-year contract for converting the land to native grasses and trees.

"I would have done it anyway," he said.

As he walks through the land, he names the grasses and talks about them like a teacher pointing out his favorite students.

"It is always beneficial to have a variety of plants," he said. Some are more resistant to drought than others, some more likely to survive a flood or fire.


"I brought these bull rushes from Freeborn County," he said.

He's fond of sedge because it's a favorite of waterfowl. He has counted 1,500 to 2,000 ducks in this area at times.

"Here's some blue grass, and that's a Wapato duck potato."

He recalled spotting some sedge on acreage he owns farther north that he didn't have time to gather. When he returned, it had disappeared. Later, he found a lot of it at the corner of the property that had been in corn.

"A lot of seed is embedded in the soil," he explained. "When you convert land to its natural state again, it will come back."

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