Just exactly what is a wetland? A wasteland that is not good for anything? A low-lying area that should be drained or at the very least, avoided? Although these thoughts were common not too long ago, research has showed that this is far from the truth.
Wetlands are found in a variety of climates and exist on every continent except Antarctica. Some are salt marshes and others, like in northwest Ohio, are often flooded woods or low-lying grasslands.
According to the National Park Service, “Wetlands are highly productive and biologically diverse systems that enhance water quality, control erosion, maintain stream flows, sequester carbon, and provide a home to at least one third of all threatened and endangered species.”
It is important to recognize that wetlands are a valuable resource that provide many important services that support the overall health of local ecosystems.
Northwest Ohio was once known as the Great Black Swamp. As glaciers that once covered the area thousands of years ago began to recede, what remained was approximately 1,500 square miles of wooded marshland. The area was heavily populated by dense, water-tolerant trees. Predominately clay soils, decaying leaves, and sometimes chest high swamp water meant that the northwest Ohio area was one of the last to be settled. Most settlers stayed clear of the area for the disagreeable living conditions.
It is said that the development of transportation, namely railroads, and the installation of drainage ditches were the primary culprits for the transformation of the swamp to the cultivated agricultural fields that are found in the area today. These wetlands provided critical habitat for a variety of wildlife including birds, fish, and many species of amphibians, reptiles, and mammals that are uniquely adapted to aquatic environments. As the swampland disappeared, so did the wildlife.
Why should farmers consider implementing wetlands on low lying ground? Drainage tiles that feed ditches allow farmers to be very productive, however, when the water leaves the field, it carries with it excess nutrients. Since this area gradually slopes to Lake Erie and is part of the Maumee watershed, the runoff makes its way to larger bodies of water causing poor water quality and catastrophic algal blooms downstream. Constructing treatment wetlands or riparian forest buffers on less productive agricultural ground could be the answer that works to strike a balance between agriculture and water quality.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture or USDA, these buffers are “areas of predominantly trees and/or shrubs located adjacent to and up-gradient from watercourses or water bodies.” These areas act as an interception point for water coming off a tiled field. Multiple studies have showed that these are highly effective and require little maintenance once built.
Additionally, as residential communities have grown in their knowledge of the benefits of wetlands, it is becoming more understood that wetlands should be a critical part of community development land management. During high rain events, they slow and hold excess water until it can filter down through the soil. Wetlands help to naturally mitigate floodwaters and diminish the damage of flooding. This also gives vegetation the opportunity to absorb pollutants, filter out sediment, and clean and purify water as it percolates through the soil.
Wetland vegetation binds the soil on streambanks and riparian wetlands, preventing excessive erosion and sedimentation downstream. The quality of water is dramatically improved by the time it reaches the creeks, rivers and ultimately our drinking water supply. According to Sciencedirect.com, if “10% of the Great Black Swamp region could be re-established with proper ecological engineering designed wetlands, 40% or more of the phosphorus load from the Maumee River Basin now going into Lake Erie, could be removed.”
As these and many other wetland functions have become more widely known, wetlands are increasingly seen as productive and valuable resources worthy of protection and restoration. They are critically important to the overall health of our water, environment, and our community.
There are existing programs that will help design, manage, and pay farmers for the use of low-lying areas because these programs are so critical to the health and well-being of bodies of water. Learn more about these conservation programs by visiting https://www.nrcs.usda.gov. Information on potential funding sources can be found by reaching out to Paulding Soil & Water Conservation District by phone at 419-399-4771, or emailing email@example.com.