The ecological value of Fermilab’s wetlands

Nepese Marsh is located in the northeast corner of the Village. This diverse and productive wetland was once a sewage treatment lagoon. Photo: Dave Shemanske, FESS Roads and Grounds

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, May is American Wetlands Month. Like many natural ecosystems, American wetlands have suffered because of the spread of agriculture and other development. In Illinois, less than half of pre-settlement wetlands remain, and many of the remnants are severely degraded by isolation and contamination. Wetland types vary among open-water marshes, wet woodlands and seasonally dry sedge meadows.

Ecologists often speak of the services that various ecosystems provide for our human society. Wetlands provide many of these services. They retain storm water and prevent downstream flooding while removing chemical contaminants, supply large amounts of storage for water, create habitat for all sorts of fauna and provide an array of recreational opportunities.

At Fermilab, we are fortunate to be situated in an area historically rich in wetland habitats. Situated at the divide between the Fox and DuPage River watersheds, the land on which the laboratory sits was covered by wetlands before the settlers drained and plowed it 175 years ago. Because of Fermilab’s existence, many of the historic wetlands are returning and their quality is being restored. Examples can be found in the wet forest adjacent to Indian Creek and the 11-acre sedge meadow inside the Main Injector ring. A good example of a “created” wetland can be seen in the Village at Nepese Marsh, at the northern end of DUSAF Pond, where an old sewage treatment lagoon was transformed into a rich and productive area for bird and butterfly watchers.

Wetlands sometimes get a bad reputation as useless wasteland, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When you get the chance, pay a visit to some of the wetland areas on our site, and appreciate the variety and complexity they represent. Outside Fermilab’s boundaries, the region boasts some other fine examples of wetlands, such as Nelson Lake marsh in Batavia and Volo Bog in Lake County.

Rod Walton