US 12 project for the birds, too

Waterfowl and other wildlife have gained a patch of seasonal wetlands as part of mitigation for the highway expansion.

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Brian Burns of the Tri State Steelheaders, center, and Tom Dwonch of Blue Mountain Land Trust at the site of one of the three ponds excavated as part of a project that is creating new wetlands on donated farmland off of Reser Road. (Nov. 2, 2010)

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Restored wetlands lay cradled in a low spot between fields sown with winter wheat on the Brewer Farm off of Reser Road. Local organizations have restored the 23-acre site as mitigation for construction of a portion of the new U.S. Highway 12. (Nov. 2, 2010)

WALLA WALLA -- Nestled in the rolling farmlands alongside Reser Road, a patch of wetlands is taking shape thanks to a major highway project.

Funded by the Washington state Department of Transportation as mitigation for part of the new U.S. Highway 12 expansion project, the 23-acre site will be home for waterfowl and wildlife for years to come. The land will remain privately owned, but will be managed for the sole protection of the wetland habitat.

Tom Dwonch of the Blue Mountain Land Trust said this is the first "fee in lieu of mitigation" project WSDOT has undertaken. The department contracted with the Tri-State Steelheaders to create the wetlands, paying funds "up front" for work to be done rather than the other way around.

"To WSDOT's credit, they had to take a leap of faith," said Dave Karl of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "They had to pay for work not done yet."

Along with the Tri-State Steelheaders, which obtained the funding, local organizations involved are the land trust, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Walla Walla County Conservation District and WDFW. Ducks Unlimited, working under a contract with the Tri-State Steelheaders, did the original site work to excavate the ponds and plant aquatic vegetation.

"Putting some of this habitat back in is incredibly important," Karl said. "Kudos to the landowners and people who worked on the nuts and bolts of this project to bring this into being."

Karl was among a group of diverse people at the site last month planting red twig dogwood and willow trees that will take root around three ponds excavated at the site.

"These will be seasonal wetlands," said Brian Burns of the Tri-State Steelheaders, meaning the ponds' water levels will rise and fall as they are filled by rains and snow. "For us this is great, these are low-maintenance ponds which will not need a dam structure."

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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