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Staff Blog

What is a wetland and why are wetlands important?

Kevin McLane

Here at Green3 many of our projects require us to perform an official survey of project sites for the presence of any wetlands and the impacts on those wetlands. One of the questions we often get is: What is a wetland? Many people only have a vague understanding of what wetlands are. People see them in parks and nature preserves, they are aware of their protection by various government bodies and nonprofits, and they hear about how impacts from pollution and habitat loss are bad. But what does the term “wetland” actually mean? A wetland is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as:

Those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.

Basically, a wetland is an area that is wet for a long enough period through the year that the soil becomes saturated and only allows growth of certain plants that can survive in such conditions. These plants are known as hydrophytic plants and their morphological, physiological, and reproductive adaptations allow them to grow, compete, persist, and reproduce in anaerobic soil conditions (soils deprived of oxygen). These soils are known as hydric soils. Ok, so we now know that wetlands: are definitely wet during some point of the year, have hydric soils, and have hydrophytic plants. So why exactly should we care about wetlands?

Examples of some common Midwest plants that are found in wetlands: American Sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis) sapling seen center and Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) seen on the ride side.

Here are some of the reasons wetlands are important (according to the US Army Corps of Engineers):

  • They reduce downstream peak water discharge and volume
  • They help maintain and improve surface water quality by storing nutrients and  removing contaminants
  • They maintain groundwater storage
  • They contribute to nutrient capital of the ecosystem through cycling of nutrients
  • They maintain habitat for plants and animals
  • Wetlands provide recreational, aesthetic, and educational opportunities to our communities
  • Wetlands enhance decomposition and mobilization of metals
  • They support aquatic food webs and downstream biogeochemical processes

Based on all those reasons, it is clear that wetlands are a natural part of our native ecosystem and that we should protect them. Without wetlands we lose thousands of plant and animal species, we lose out on thousands of gallons of water, we miss out on natural decontamination of our own water supply, and our soils can quickly become nutrient depleted. Without our protection now, future generations of Americans might not have the chance to enjoy the beauty of our nations natural wetlands. During the time of European settlement, the United States had approximately 221 million acres of wetlands and only about 103 million acres remained as of the mid-1980's. Wetlands were fast becoming one of the scarcest resources we had in the U.S, but we have only recently started to minimize these losses and start rebuilding wetlands.  Protection of our water resources is possible through the combined efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.  Wetlands are a finite and delicate resource and that is why Green3 is trying to do our part in ensuring the protection of these important features.  

To learn more about wetlands, give Green3 a call or check out the following resources:

Indiana Department of Environmental Management - http://www.in.gov/idem/wetlands/index.htm

Indiana Department of Natural Resources - http://www.in.gov/dnr/naturepreserve/7384.htm

History of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States, by Dahl and Johnson 1991 - https://www.fws.gov/wetlands/Documents/History-of-Wetlands-in-the-Conterminous-United-States.pdf

EPA Wetlands Protection and Restoration - http://www.epa.gov/wetlands

Get out there and enjoy those wetlands!