Wetlands expansion begins as part of South Lawrence Trafficway plan
Mark Wellendorf plans to drive his skid loader through hydric soil just south of 31st Street this fall, plowing under corn and soybean fields to make room for arrowleaf, spikerush and some two dozen other species of plants that thrive in wetlands.
Whether the South Lawrence Trafficway ever follows his lead remains to be seen.
"This is a great opportunity," Wellendorf said Wednesday, gathering seeds in the 573-acre Baker Wetlands, near the Wakarusa River. "We're going to be creating new wetlands. We won't be doing any destroying of wetlands."
Wellendorf is working with Roger Boyd, director of natural areas for Baker University, to expand the university's natural area at the southern edge of Lawrence.
The $975,000 project, financed by the Kansas Department of Transportation with money approved earlier this year in Congress, includes 142 acres west of Louisiana Street, generally stretching from 31st Street to the Wakarusa River.
The work is the beginning of a mitigation plan for extending the trafficway - a highway project that would connect Kansas Highway 10 east from its 35th Street intersection on Iowa Street, to the existing K-10 near Noria Road.
The new stretch of highway would follow what is considered a 32nd Street alignment, cutting through 56 acres at the northern edge of the existing Baker Wetlands.
While money exists to start the wetlands expansion project - enough to finance grading work, create water-containment systems and plant seeds gathered from the existing site - state officials don't have the estimated $148 million necessary to build the road itself.
That's to be determined during debate over a new transportation program, expected to be a dominant issue during the 2009 session of the Kansas Legislature. The trafficway has been considered a high-priority project for years, but its financing has been mired by regulatory speed bumps, potholes of opposition and anticipated legal curves.
Now, as Baker begins its efforts to add wetlands in preparation for eventual highway construction, trafficway opponents are poised to go to court.
While the main opponents - a coalition of environmental groups - generally endorse Baker's efforts to expand the wetlands, they object to building the road through the existing area.
It's a case they plan to make in a lawsuit to be filed by November, the deadline imposed by Congress to challenge the documentation approved this year that has cleared the way for construction to begin once financing becomes available.
The opponents maintain that the federal government didn't adequately consider options for building the highway outside of the wetlands, especially south of the Wakarusa River.
"We really don't have any option but to file a lawsuit, and to challenge the propriety of the environmental impact statement," said Bob Eye, who represents the Wetlands Preservation Organization, Sierra Club, Jayhawk Audubon Society and Save the Wakarusa Wetlands. "In the past, we've never had to do this because there was no imminent expenditure of funds. Now : there's this expectation that funds will be expended. That's why the issue, at least in our view, is now ripe."
Boyd, for his part, isn't concerning himself with whether the road ever will be built. He's focused instead on working to establish new wetlands, a project designed to make up for the 56 acres that would be destroyed by the new highway and also serve as a buffer from an expected increase in traffic.
As part of the construction project, the wetlands' existing boundaries would be pushed farther out - Louisiana Street would be rebuilt a half mile to the west, and Haskell Avenue would be moved a quarter mile to the east. The state also would give Baker money to build a wetlands education center, plus establish an endowment for maintaining the wetlands for years to come.
But for now, Boyd is gathering millions of seeds that will be frozen for the winter, then mixed with sawdust and spread out this spring across what now are fields of corn and soybeans. The fields will be converted this fall into 55 "natural" areas, Boyd said, and berms will be built alongside 31st Street and North 1250 Road to help the area retain water.
In all, some 26,000 cubic yards of soil will be moved around, in a process some people will be certain to confuse with highway construction, Boyd said. But nobody will be removing anything from the existing wetlands, at least not until financing for the highway's construction is secured - something Boyd figures could be at least a year or two away.