From a young age we’re taught about lakes and rivers. Most of us can describe what they are and why they’re important. We swim in them, catch fish in them, and build our cabins on their banks. We’re Midwesterners; we know about lakes and rivers. Wetlands, however, are another story. When asked what we know about wetlands, most of us will talk about cattails, lily pads, and mosquitoes. We’ll use terms like “swamp,” “pond,” or “mud puddle.” When we’re asked about why wetlands are important, we might talk about ducks and frogs, or we might not know what to say.
So What is a Wetland, Anyway?
By definition, wetlands are habitats that store enough water for long enough periods of time to support vegetative communities that thrive in wet conditions and to produce soil types that show characteristics of extended inundation. Simply put, wetlands are those areas on the landscape that are in between the places that are nearly always wet, like lakes and rivers, and nearly always dry, like upland fields or forests. Within this middle zone of wetness is a whole lot of diversity–especially in a place like Wisconsin. Wetlands may contain deep water, shallow water, or just moist soil. They are ever-changing. Their water levels may rise and fall on seasonal, yearly, or even decadal cycles.
Wetlands in Wisconsin are called by many names. Their names describe the diverse conditions under which they exist. An emergent marsh, for instance, is a shallow-water wetland containing cattails or other aquatic plants that grow up, or emerge, out of the water. This is the classic wetland type that many of us think of when we think of wetlands. We often mistakenly call them “swamps.” Emergent marshes, however, are not swamps. True swamps are wetlands that contain trees: hardwood swamps support ash, yellow birch, and other water-loving trees, while coniferous swamps can hold cedars, black spruce, and tamarack.
An example of a deciduous swamp with sphagnum.
Many other wetland types are found in Wisconsin. These include bogs, covered with floating mats of sphagnum moss; self-described alder thickets and shrub carr, occurring along rivers and lakes; sedge meadows, containing a diversity of grasses and wildflowers; and low prairies in soils too wet to support upland plants. Formed by upwelling groundwater, rare and unique fens can create wetland mounds that actually rise above the level of the non-wetland landscape.
Lastly, and most overlooked, are the workhorse ephemeral ponds. These wetlands, fed by snowmelt and rain, are reduced to mud flats by late summer, but in that short time produce an abundance of wildlife.
Why Should We Care About Wetlands?
There are many reasons wetlands are integral to ecological and human heath.
First of all, wetlands are the great regulators of water moving through our watersheds. They collect snowmelt, rain, and spring flow, releasing the waters slowly to help maintain the health of our rivers and lakes. In times of drought, wetlands retain and store precious water that would otherwise be lost downstream. In times of high precipitation, wetlands capture excess runoff and sediment, reducing flood peaks that threaten our roads, towns, and crops.
Wetlands help keep our waters clean by capturing sediment, processing nutrients and carbon, and filtering out impurities.
Wetlands provide habitat to the majority of birds breeding in or migrating through Wisconsin as well as fish, mammals, amphibians, and insects.
Wetlands replenish groundwater by allowing precipitation to soak into the soil.
Wetlands protect shorelines of our rivers and lakes from wind and wave action.
In short, we cannot have healthy water without healthy wetlands.
Wetlands provide crucial habitat for a wide variety of Wisconsin plant and animal species.
In the last 150 years or so, Wisconsin has lost nearly half of its original 10 million acres of wetlands. On top of these wetlands we placed roads, cities, towns, impervious surfaces, drainage ditches, and other watershed-altering infrastructure necessary for our economic and societal well-being. Unfortunately, you can’t replace half of the wetlands in Wisconsin with landscape-altering infrastructure without profound implications. We have changed the way water moves through our watersheds. Increased flood peaks, lower summer base flows, higher sedimentation rates, bank erosion, shallow groundwater reduction, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, aquatic plant invasion, and high nutrient rates are all exacerbated by wetland loss.
How Do We Turn This Around?
Of the wetlands that remain in Wisconsin, 75% occur on private land. Communities and landowners, then, are an important part of the solution. Our first step in helping communities and landowners care for their wetlands involves talking with them about wetlands and the crucial role wetlands play in maintaining the health of our water and watersheds. When people understand this, good things happen. We protect the things we know and care about.
During the course of my travels throughout Wisconsin, I’ve encountered many communities and individuals using their knowledge of wetlands and why they matter to put wetlands to work as cost-effective solutions to the problems facing their watersheds. Long-lasting land stewardship comes when neighbors learn from and work with one another. Here are a few examples: Near Randolph, a half dozen farm families are coordinating their efforts protecting and restoring the wetlands that connect their properties. In Bayfield County, citizens have partnered with a local land trust to raise tens of thousands of dollars to protect hundreds of acres of wetlands in a cold water trout-producing watershed. In Fond du Lac, elected officials, landowners, and business leaders are working together to restore the health of a historic marsh along Lake Winnebago.
The wetland work in these examples is all happening because neighbors are talking to neighbors about wetlands and the benefits they provide our communities. To help us communicate more effectively about water and wetlands, Wisconsin Wetlands Association has partnered with The Wisconsin Academy Sciences, Arts & Letters to offer a workshop this month at our Annual Wetlands Science Conference in Madison. This workshop takes advantage of insights from social science and field experience to deliver information on how people “hear” and think about messages related to water and wetlands.
If we can talk with communities and landowners about wetlands and water in a way that speaks to their experiences and values, we can create true engagement and lasting change.