What’s being done to restore wetlands?

Wetlands are fun places to get muddy, enjoy the outdoors, and listen for birdsongs. They provide important habitat for wildlife, and for recreation. You’ve likely seen wetlands on the fringes of lakes, on river floodplains, along the coast, and anywhere else where water accumulates on the landscape.

Wetlands are found at the intersection of earth/soil and water ecosystems. Because of the complex interactions of land and water, they have unique properties. Despite only occupying 5% of the earth’s surface, wetlands are one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet.

  • Wetlands provide habitat for a variety of distinctive plants and animals.
  • More than third of threatened and endangered species live in wetlands.
  • Wetlands improve water quality.
  • They help regulate our climate.
  • Wetlands decrease the impact of floods and hurricanes.
  • They provide space for recreational activities like hunting, boating, and birding.
dark stream of soil being blown onto water
As part of wetland restoration in New Jersey, teams intentionally added sediment. These additions to a degraded coastal marsh improved conditions for plant growth. Credit: Tim Welp/Christine VanZomeren

Unfortunately, human activities have negatively impacted many wetlands. In fact, 50% of the wetlands in the contiguous United States have been drained or filled. This was done to expand agriculture, develop housing and businesses, control mosquitos, or establish dams and reservoirs.

But we learned that wetland alteration worsens flooding, storm damage, and water quality problems. Without wetlands, the land has less capacity to store runoff from rain, and intercept waves. The soils and plants in the wetlands can no longer clean water before it reaches lakes, rivers, and oceans. Recent alarming events including the flooding observed during Hurricane Harvey and the development of harmful algae blooms in Florida and the Great Lakes. These were intensified by wetland alteration.

top photo mostly sand with little plants, bottom photo crowded wetland plants
A recent restoration project along the Gulf of Mexico established native plants using help from the local community. Top photo shows planting day; bottom photo shows the successful restoration one year later. Credit: Brian Durham

In response to these challenges, much is being done to restore wetlands and reestablish the benefits wetlands provide to society. Restoration efforts are as diverse as wetlands themselves.

  • Regional: the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan is a $10 billion dollar, 35-year project. It will address phosphorus pollution and reestablish natural water flows throughout south Florida.
  • Farm level: since 1990, thousands of farmers in the Mississippi River Valley used incentives from the Wetland Reserve Program. They take marginal, wet, farmland out of production, and regenerate wetlands through reforestation. These small individual efforts collectively restored over 700,000 acres of wetlands! The wetlands now provide habitat for waterfowl and other species. They also provide for recreation, help control runoff, prevent erosion, and keep chemicals out of our waterways.
  • Urban: in San Antonio, Texas, urban green spaces have been reconnected with wetlands. The project provides habitat and recreational opportunities for humans, plants, and animals. Urban wetlands and green spaces also provide water retention and help to abate flood damage.

Most wetland restoration projects seek to restore distinct plant and animal populations. For example, wetland scientists remove unwanted plants or animals and replace them with native species. A recent project in Galveston Bay, Texas highlights the benefits of planting native plant species. The effort not only established a desirable plant community, but also helped to stabilize the soil. This prevents erosion, provides habitat for birds and other species, and engaged the local community to complete the project.

ducks swimming in stream
An urban green space wetland restoration project in San Antonio, Texas, provides habitat and recreational opportunities for humans, plants, and animals. Credit: Jacob Berkowitz

Restoration projects often also reconnect wetlands with sources of water and sediment, allowing them to expand and grow. These efforts are becoming increasingly important, as many coastal wetlands face challenges from sea level rise. A New Jersey project will help restore wetland and protect the coast from storm damage. The restoration team blew in sediments to raise the marsh elevation. This step also improved conditions for plant growth.

In portions of Louisiana subject to land loss, sediment-rich Mississippi River water will be reintroduced into wetlands to build new land. Coastal marshes are also being reconnected with sediment and water sources along the Great Lakes and in San Francisco Bay to improve conditions for threatened and endangered birds and fish species.

While some restoration projects may not return the land to their pre-alteration state, they help. Restored wetlands provide ecological functions and societal benefits required to improve conditions for all species, even if they don’t look like their unaltered counterparts.

Two things are sure when it comes to wetland restoration. First, the amount of wetland degradation provides a variety of opportunities for restoration projects. And second, this is an evolving space for innovation and experimentation. New efforts are being developed all the time, implementing wetland restoration projects using novel technologies and techniques.

There are resources to help restore wetlands in your community. Contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District, university extension office, Natural Resources Conservation Service office, or non-profit organization to investigate opportunities.

And don’t forget to save some time to play in the mud!

Answered by Jacob F. Berkowitz, PhD, CPSS, PWS, US Army Corps of Engineers

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