Case Study:
Prairie Grass

Location: American Water Systems Around the Midwest Plant Native Grasses to Restore Natural Habitats

Prairies are areas of landcover made up of different species of native grasses, herbs and shrubs. They grow in both tall and short varieties and can be found across the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., prairies can be found throughout the Midwest – from North Dakota to Texas and from Iowa to Montana. The grasses provide a positive aesthetic to the landscape and are also an important part of the ecology of the areas they cover.

At one time, prairie grasses covered millions of acres of land across North America. They evolved over tens of thousands of years with their only disturbances being natural fire and grazing. But as the colonization of America progressed and as the land began to be developed for residential, commercial and agricultural purposes, the grass began to disappear. Today, less than one-tenth of one-percent of the original prairie remains.

Across the American Water footprint, teams are working to restore areas originally covered with prairie grass. The grasses can be planted in either the spring or fall and generally take a full year to establish roots. In the first year, weed control is especially important to the prairie grass, and herbicides may be used to eliminate them from the young grass. The grass “grows down” in the first year to establish roots, and then begins to “grow up” after roots are stabilized; the grass takes about two years to fully fill in. As the grass becomes more established over the years, controlled burns are used to not only kill weeds, but also to help the grass grow and become stronger. Historically, prairie grass was prone to natural fires such as lightning strikes and controlled burns help to rejuvenate and strengthen the grasses by simulating its natural life cycle.

Prairies are home to many species of insects, birds and mammals. The restoration of the prairie grass supports biodiversity and improves natural wildlife habitats. Because the grass does not require mowing, creating areas of prairie grass also reduces the amount of maintenance required in the area where it grows.

Illinois American Water

The East St. Louis water treatment plant sits on approximately 16 acres of land adjacent to the eastern bank of the Mississippi River. In 2007, approximately 2.5 acres of that land was cleared out and re- planted with native grasses and other natural plantings. The grasses line the entrance to the plant and now, in their third year, are helping to enhance the biodiversity of the area, improve wildlife habitat, and help restore the area's natural environment. As well as promoting biodiversity, the prairie needs no mowing, thereby allowing the site to be able to be managed in a more sustainable fashion. The grasses are burned annually to kill off debris and promote growth, which in turn helps sustain the area for the insects, birds and mammals that now call this area home. Illinois American Water teams have also planted plots of natural grasses on company property in Belleville and Champaign.

Indiana American Water

Prairie grass once covered over one million acres in Indiana. Today there are less than one thousand acres of virgin prairie left. Teams at Indiana American Water are working to restore native grasses to wellfields and other areas of open land on company property.

The Philips Street Plant in Indiana American Water’s Kokomo District is just one of the areas where grass has been planted. Working with Grant County Hoosier Bobwhite Chapter of Quail Forever, 56 acres of prairie grass have been planted on the facility’s property. Along with the grasses, native wildflowers have been planted to add to the aesthetic of the property, and to encourage food chain growth and vitality. Thriving prairies are home to insects, birds and small mammals, all of which have been naturally re- introduced into the area.

The area was planted with a combination of four prairie grasses and six wildflower varieties. As a result, the population of once rare nesting birds and other wildlife has increased as the field continues to mature into a prime nesting and roosting area. The National Audubon Society has had a representative visit the area to catalog all the new varieties of birds, which is additional evidence of the success of this particular area of planting.

A controlled burn that will rejuvenate the area by removing harmful layers of debris and suppress weed reforestation is scheduled on the property in 2011. Indiana American Water has also planted nine acres of native grasses at the London Road water treatment plant in Shelby County.

Missouri American Water

In Missouri, teams have planted close to ten acres of prairie grass within the footprint of four plants: Central, St. Joseph, South and Joplin. Missouri American Water works in conjunction with the Missouri Department of Conservation to develop the burn plans needed to support and sustain the area.

Since the grasses have been planted and maintained over the last few years, wildlife has returned to the area. American Water employees have reported seeing the return of insects, butterflies, birds, skunks, possum and deer.