Why Wetlands Matter

Wetlands like the tidal marshes at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge are critical nurseries for fish and crab and were once part of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad.

I couldn’t have timed my commute worse this morning. The wind picked up just as I was stepping on the bus. Halfway to work, the lightning and thunder started up. And, just in time for the walk to the office from the bus stop, the downpour began. During the soggy jog to shelter, as I often do during spring showers and summer storms, I thought of wetlands.

Wetlands are, quite simply, the land between areas that are always dry and areas that are always wet. They are places that evolved to accommodate the unexpected – to receive floodwaters during heavy rains and to retain water during drought. As this great video from the Wisconsin Wetlands Association explains, “they hold and manage a lot of water and literally slow the flow, allowing the water to soak into the ground.”

Wetlands are also hotspots of biodiversity and provide habitat for fish to spawn and birds to nest and all sorts of plants and animals to thrive.

Knowing all this, you’d expect humans to love wetlands. Yet our history tells a different story. The problem, of course, is that humans don’t like the unexpected. We don’t want to live in the in-between. We want to live next to water and, like Goldilocks, have our land be just right – not too wet and not too dry.

As we built towns and cities and roads and railways, we drained swamps and hemmed in our rivers with levees and channelized our streams and did basically anything we could to keep water where we wanted it.

The Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee is almost entirely channelized (encased in concrete). The city of Milwaukee is working to restore the river bank and design a more natural flow to reduce stormwater flood events and pollution. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

Here in Wisconsin, we’ve lost nearly half of our wetlands since the 1800s. While this allowed us to live and farm right up to the water’s edge, it also created a bunch of new problems.

Currently, 75% of Wisconsin’s wetlands are on land that is privately owned. And, last year, our outgoing governor signed a bill easing restrictions for those landowners to pursue projects that would fill in wetlands to build homes or businesses or make more room to grow corn and soybeans. Proponents of the bill say that only “marginal” wetlands will be affected – ones within half a mile of urban areas or isolated wetlands in farm country.

The problem is, those are exactly the locations where wetlands’ services are often needed.

Class of 1918 Marsh on the UW-Madison campus. Bryce Richter, University Communications

Without wetlands, water moves much quicker off the landscape. Instead of having wetlands to soak up rain like a sponge, our streams and rivers and lakes now often get more water than they can handle, which means any reasonable downpour is likely to lead to at least moderate flooding.

According to the U.S. EPA, one acre of wetland can hold one million gallons of water. Without a wetland, we turn to stormwater retention ponds and other urban infrastructure to try to handle that load.

Farmers Care for Wetlands from Wisconsin Wetlands Association on Vimeo.

What’s more, without wetlands to slow and hold runoff, pollutants in our water – like farm fertilizer – move more easily into water bodies, where they can trigger algae blooms and compromise drinking water supplies. And then there’s the fact that three-fourths of Wisconsin wildlife depend in some way on wetlands.

The good news is that we still have a lot of wetlands in Wisconsin – about 5 million acres – and a lot of people, from city planners to farmers to paddlers, are doing what they can to protect them. With increasing precipitation, more intense storms and even longer droughts on the horizon, wetlands become even more important in our attempts to live in the “new normal” of our warming world.

As Tracy Hames, executive director of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association puts it, “Wetlands certainly are going to be an important part of the solution to the water resource issues we’re facing in Wisconsin.”