Protect and restore wetlands, one of the most important, threatened, and under-appreciated ecosystems on earth.
Wetlands are the unsung heroes of the natural world. They provide food, fresh water, and livelihoods for 3 billion people and habitat for 40 percent of all wildlife species. They are found on every continent except Antarctica. They can be freshwater or saline, seasonal or permanent, inland or coastal. Wetlands filter pollution, buffer droughts, and protect against floods. They are highly efficient at storing carbon in soils, particularly coastal wetlands, which can sequester ten times more carbon than tropical forests. Wetlands are disappearing faster than any other type of ecosystem. Sixty percent have been lost worldwide and the remainder are being impacted by rising temperatures, bigger storms, and prolonged drought amplified by climate change. Wetlands are well studied. We know how to restore and protect them and must do so with urgency.
Learn what wetlands are, where they are located, and why they are needed. Far from the insect-infested swamps of popular imagination, wetlands exist in a wide variety of types, shapes, and sizes. Any area of land that is saturated with water for a period of time could be a wetland. Divided between inland and coastal types, wetlands include fens, bogs, moors, marshes, muskegs, quagmires, mudflats, potholes, vernal pools, cienegas, playas, sloughs, bayous, peatlands, deltas, and mangrove forests. Wetlands can be found above the Arctic Circle, deep in the tropics, high in the mountains, along coasts, in arid lands, and in the heart of cities. They can be as small as an acre or as big as the 70,000 square-mile Pantanal in South America. Here are ten important wetlands. Here are the ten largest in the world. The essential ecosystem services they provide include:
- Wetlands recharge water tables and underground aquifers by trapping and slowly releasing surface water, including snowmelt and flood waters.
- They improve water quality by acting as a filter for pollutants and nutrients.
- Wetlands help control flooding by absorbing excess storm water, thereby protecting property and nearby communities from flood damage.
- Some wetlands store more atmospheric carbon than tropical forests, particularly in peatlands and bogs where oxygen-deprived conditions in soils slow the decomposition process. Peatlands contain 30 percent of all terrestrial carbon while occupying only 3 percent of the land’s surface (see Peatlands Nexus). The largest peat wetlands in the world, located in the Congo River basin, can sequester up to 30 billion metric tons of carbon. If undisturbed, wetland carbon can remain sequestered for long periods of time. Conversely, wetland destruction releases carbon back into the air.
- Coastal wetlands, such as salt marshes and mangrove forests, can store large amounts of carbon dioxide in their soil, called blue carbon (see Tidal Salt Marshes Nexus and Mangroves Nexus).
- Coastal wetlands act as a buffer against flooding and other effects caused by major storm events, including hurricanes.
- Wetlands are a rich source of food for a wide variety of species. Plants in wetlands feed aquatic insects, shellfish, and small fish, which in turn feed reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals.
- Wetlands are home to an immense diversity of life, including otters, fish, mollusks, cranes, alligators, frogs, turtles, ducks, muskrat, deer, peregrine falcon, and black bears. The Sundarbans, a saltwater wetland in India and Bangladesh, is home to nearly seven hundred different species, including the endangered Bengal tiger.
- More than one third of threatened and endangered species in the United States live only in wetlands, and nearly half use wetlands at some point.
- Certain types of fish and shellfish require coastal wetlands to survive, including important commercial species such as flounder, striped bass, shrimp, oysters, clams, and crabs.
- Migratory waterfowl use coastal and inland wetlands as resting, feeding, breeding, and nesting grounds.
- Rice is a staple food for more than 3 billion people, and rice paddies are considered a type of human-created wetland, though they need to be farmed regeneratively (see Rice Cultivation Nexus).
- Wetlands provide food and natural products for people, including berries, timber, wild rice, and medicines.
- In cities, wetlands also provide important opportunities for recreation, such as the Ballona wetlands in Los Angeles.
- Wetlands are popular locations for wildlife viewing, fishing, and hunting. Many wetlands in the U.S. are part of the National Wildlife Refuge system and can be visited by the public.
- The oldest intergovernmental environmental agreement in the world is the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. It maintains a list of critical wetlands that has grown to over 2,400 sites.
- You can locate a wetland with the Global Wetlands Map.
Learn why wetlands are threatened. Many types of human activities imperil wetlands. Major threats include:
- Conversion. Transforming wetlands into arable farmland or commercial and residential development usually results in their destruction.
- Alterations to natural water flows. Draining, dredging, channeling, and the construction of roads, dikes, levees, and dams can interrupt water flow and disable the health of wetlands. In the Everglades National Park, agencies are working to restore water flow that has been diverted by canals and levees for many decades.
- Groundwater withdrawals. Excessive pumping can lower water levels in wetland systems.
- Pollutants. Chemicals, human sewage, animal waste, road salts, petroleum products, heavy metals and other pollutants can harm wildlife and damage a wetland’s ability to function properly.
- Nonnative and invasive plants and animals. Nonnative species can displace native species, disrupting ecological balances and damaging natural wetland habitat. Nutria, a large rodent native to South America and imported to the United States, have established populations in Gulf Coast wetlands, outcompeting natives such as beavers, muskrats, and mink.
- Oil spills. A petroleum spill can do serious damage to plant, bird, fish, and mammal populations that depend on wetlands. Floating oil is a major hazard to birds and mammals, coating their feathers and fur.
- Agricultural nutrients. Phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients flow into streams from industrial farms and can overwhelm the filtering capacity of wetlands. High concentrations can cause excessive growth of algae.
- Rice farming. Industrialized rice production, including the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, harms aquatic life in rice paddies.
- Dumping. Trash, sewage, industrial products, and fill from development can damage a wetland. Channel Islands National Park in southern California and Cuyahoga Valley National Park in northern Ohio are two examples where fill has been removed to restore wetlands.
- Overgrazing by livestock. If not managed carefully, grazing can remove plants that stabilize streambanks and protect soils from erosion, causing channel formation and filling streams with sediment, impacting wetlands.
- Climate Change. Higher temperatures and prolonged droughts are drying out inland wetlands while rising sea levels are threatening to submerge coastal wetlands. Bigger and more frequent storm events create flooding that can erode or destroy a wetland area.
- Deforestation. Activities that remove forests, including clear-cutting and conversion to palm oil plantations, can create a variety of impacts on wetlands, particularly in areas with high concentrations of peat soil (see Peatlands Nexus, Palm Oil Nexus, and Tropical Forests Nexus).
Take action to protect wetlands. A wetland may exist downstream from where you live, in your neighborhood or community, on public lands nearby, or another place known to you. Here are some things that you can do:
- Use nontoxic products. Household cleaning, lawn, garden, and medicinal products need to be free of chemicals that harm wetlands and aquatic life. Dispose responsibly. Do not pour any down a drain unless the product is known to be safe. Use nonnitrogen lawn supplements.
- Reduce, reuse, and recycle your trash. Landfills can be a source of contaminants that end up in wetlands. Avoid using bleached paper, which contains toxic chemicals that can contaminate water.
- Conserve water. Many wetlands, especially seasonal ones, depend on a limited supply of fresh water. There are many ways to conserve water at home. Use only as much as you need. Check your pipes and fittings regularly for any leakages. During the summer months, water your plants early in the morning. Install rain barrels.
- Clean up. Keep sidewalks, lawns, and driveways clear of pet waste, trash, toxic chemicals, fertilizers, and motor oil—all of which can wash into storm drains and end up in wetlands.
- Plant trees, shrubs, and flowers that are native to where you live. If you’re planning to install a garden or landscaping, do research to see which plants are native to your area and can support wetland health by reducing the threat of invasive species (see Eating Plants Nexus).
- Flag illegal clearing or dumping activity. In many parts of the world, wetlands are protected areas, which means it is a violation to dump waste, excavate soil, unload dirt, or otherwise harm them. Talk to the person committing the violation, if possible. Report the damage to the appropriate local or state authorities. Here is information from the EPA on reporting.
- Attend local planning meetings that involve wetlands. In many places, proposed impacts to a wetland must go through a permitting process. Most of these decisions are discussed in public meetings. Let officials know that you don’t support building on wetlands.
- Purchase federal duck stamps (U.S.). Duck stamps are required for hunting but can be purchased for conservation. The money raised is used to benefit wildfowl habitat, including wetlands acquisition and protection.
- Participate in World Wetlands Day (February 2). This is an annual event sponsored by the United Nations to call awareness to wetlands. In 2022, there were over 1,400 events, including lectures, meetings, tours, bird walks, restoration work, and student activities.
- Visit a wetland. Many outdoor public spaces, parks, and nature reserves have wetlands. Be respectful.
Join or volunteer with a local wetland protection organization or project. If you live near a wetland, consider supporting nonprofit organizations devoted to protecting the area.
- Get involved in a wetland cleanup in your community. Find an organization in your area and contact them about joining their team as a volunteer or intern. Here is an example from Virginia. Here is one in Spain.
- A new initiative in India enlists volunteers to protect local wetlands through cleanup work and the reporting of dumping and other illegal activities.
- The EPA provides a detailed list of activities that volunteers can undertake to protect wetlands, including joining peer-to-peer networks, monitoring restoration progress, applying for a grant, and conducting outreach.
- Ducks Unlimited works to conserve and restore wildfowl habitat in North America and has a wide range of opportunities for volunteers, mostly in local chapters. A critical area of work are prairie potholes in the Midwest.
- There are many opportunities for wetland conservation associated with restoring beavers to their former habitat (see Beavers Nexus).
- In many nations, wetlands conservation is part of a larger effort to restore degraded land in a variety of ecosystems. Examples include: planting mangrove trees to restore Lake Nokoue in West Africa; planting one million trees to prevent fires in peatlands in Borneo; bog restoration in Poland’s Slowinski National Park, one of ten bog projects across Eastern Europe; wetland restoration along the Havel River region in northeast Germany, which suffered degradation due to streamside development.
Join a campaign and/or make a donation to organizations that protect and restore wetlands. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play a critical role in the defense of wetlands around the world. Supporting these organizations with a donation or membership is vital to their success (see Key Players).
- Friends of the Earth has a Save the Wetlands campaign.
- Power of Wetlands is a multifaceted international effort to protect wetlands through action and storytelling.
- The Sierra Club has a Woods & Wetlands campaign.
- Libera has a Wetlands Awareness campaign.
- World Wetland Network conducts surveys of wetlands and leads educational activities that raise awareness about wetlands.
Get trained and/or earn an education certificate in wetlands restoration. Programs include:
- Citizen scientists have been surveying and reporting on the condition of wetlands for years. Here is a report (2020) on the results of a citizen science survey conducted on five hundred wetlands across the globe.
- Wetland Science and Practice is a quarterly publication of the Society of Wetland Scientists.
- The certification program at the University of Minnesota offers training in practical skills necessary to undertake restoration projects including wetlands, lakeshores, forests, and savannas.
- The Society for Ecological Restoration offers a certification program for practitioners in training and experienced professionals. It also has a Restoration Resource Center and a Directory where you can find local experts and companies that specialize in restoration.
- The EPA’s National Wetlands Condition Assessment has additional opportunities.
Speak up. Write an op-ed to a newspaper or social media site advocating for the protection and restoration of wetlands, particularly as a climate change solution, such as this one. Consider writing longer pieces for online sites such as Medium, like this one about ecological restoration.
- Emphasize the many ecological benefits of wetlands, like this op-ed.
- Here is one about the value of coastal wetlands.
- Here is one about the role of wetlands in cities.
Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Landowners
Understand the regulations and laws regarding wetlands where you live. In the U.S., 75 percent of all wetlands are privately owned. For some, the regulation of wetlands by government agencies has been a source of dispute and legal conflict, but for many others it is a matter of understanding the process.
- In the U.S., regulatory obligations start with Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Here is a primer from the EPA. Wetlands may fall into a category called Waters of the World, which involves regulations that governs bodies of water and “navigable” streams, under the jurisdiction of the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These regulations are the source of ongoing legal review; check here for developments.
- Here is a Factsheet on wetlands from the EPA.
- Here is a history of wetlands protection in the U.S. In 1956, Circular 39 was published by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, introducing the term “wetland” to the public. Here is a legal history of wetlands legislation.
- Here is a summary of federal wetland policies and programs.
- For agricultural producers, wetland regulations were implemented in the 1985 Farm Bill, which discouraged the conversion of wetlands. Here is a primer from the USDA on wetlands compliance for agricultural production on private land. Here is additional information from the EPA.
- Know the three attributes that indicate the presence of wetlands: (1) the plants are predominantly hydrophytes, which only grow in or near water; (2) the substrate soil is predominantly hydric, which is soil formed as a result of frequent flooding or ponding; and (3) the area is wet or covered by water at some point each year.
- Explore wetland location databases, such as the National Wetlands Inventory (U.S.).
Protect and restore wetlands. If you have wetlands on your property, including coastal wetlands, view their protection and restoration as an opportunity to help a critical ecosystem that benefits us all.
- In the U.S., if you suspect you might have wetlands on your property and intend to impact it, you must get a professional wetland delineation survey done first. This formal assessment establishes the location and size of a wetland for purposes of complying with the Clean Water Act and other federal, state, and local regulations.
- If you have a wetland, maintain a buffer strip of native plants along the streambanks and wetland edges. A buffer will stabilize the streambank, prevent erosion, and improve the health of the land in general.
- Do not use pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers in agricultural practices since they are likely to accumulate in the wetland.
- Avoid and/or replace nonnative and invasive species of plants, as they are likely to adversely impact native wetland species.
- Do not dump trash or chemical waste in areas where they might eventually migrate into wetlands.
- Keep stormwater runoff as clean as possible by removing any substance that might pollute a wetland as a result of a flood or storm event.
- If necessary, consider mitigating the loss of your wetland by restoring a degraded wetland somewhere else or by creating a bank of new wetlands. Mitigation banks can be on your land or someone else’s. In the U.S., a regulating authority, such as the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, must give its approval prior to any mitigation activity.
- Rewilding private wetlands could be an investment opportunity.
- Implement creek and riparian area restoration on your property. Let the Water Do the Work by riparian specialist Bill Zeedyk is a manual on how to harness the regenerative power of moving water to reshape stream banks, rebuild floodplains, and restore wetlands. A multiyear wet-meadow restoration project in the Gunnison Valley of western Colorado featuring Zeedyk’s work has successfully “rewetted” many acres of wildlife habitat. Here is an online guide to riparian restoration planning.
Join a collaborative restoration effort or a watershed group. There are regional, multistakeholder groups in the U.S. that include or feature agricultural producers in restoration activities. Some examples include:
- Western Landowners Alliance
- Sustainable Northwest
- Quivira Coalition
- Sage Grouse Initiative
- Rural Voice for Conservation Coalition
- Other localized groups include the Salmon Falls watershed collaborative in New Hampshire and the Blackfoot Challenge in Montana
City and County/State/Federal Land Managers
Stop the loss of wetland habitat in cities and on county, state, and federal land and restore as many wetlands as possible. Although jurisdiction for wetland protection mainly falls to the federal government in many nations, local governments have an important role to play in protecting wetlands.
- The improper construction and maintenance of public roads and bridges can interfere with natural water patterns, damaging wetlands.
- Beavers often create wetlands with their dams and ponds. Their presence can complicate things for land managers, including road and bridge repair and maintenance, as well as flood management. There are many options for coexistence with beavers (see Beavers Nexus).
- If the destruction of a wetland is necessary for a larger community benefit, scientifically constructed wetlands can be used to balance or offset the loss. These are ecologically engineered projects involving soils, plants, and water retention structures that mimic the function of natural wetlands. Constructed wetlands are also useful for wastewater treatment and often need state or municipal funding to implement. Here is information from the EPA on constructed wetlands.
Governments must implement policies that are wetland-friendly. In recent years, the continued loss of wetlands has prompted many governments around the world to implement incentives to encourage wetlands protection and restoration to augment regulations.
- The Sustainable Wetlands Adaptation and Mitigation Program (SWAMP) is an international effort to integrate research, practice, and policy on behalf of wetlands protection and restoration.
- The Blue Carbon Policy Framework is an international effort to influence policy concerning mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrass habitats. Blue carbon is increasingly seen as having an important role in ending the climate crisis and efforts are being implemented to protect and restore these ecosystems.
- New York City protected its drinking-water supply by protecting upstate watersheds and wetlands in cooperation with local landowners and government agencies.
- The city of Phoenix, Arizona, worked with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, and local environmental groups to successfully create a wetland called the Tres Rios Demonstration Project using water from a wastewater facility. The wetland has become popular with wildlife, including beavers.
- The Giacomini Wetlands Restoration Project in northern California was successfully implemented by the National Park Service in cooperation with federal and state agencies.
- The EPA has a number of grant opportunities that can support state and tribal wetland programs. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has a similar grant program for coastal wetlands.
Wetlands Initiative (U.S.)
Isaac Walton League (U.S.)
Wetlands Work (U.S.)
Ducks Unlimited (U.S.)
Trout Unlimited (U.S.)
Wetlands Institute (U.S.)
Friends of the Earth (U.S.)
Chesapeake Bay Foundation (U.S.)
The Conservation Fund (U.S.)
National Wildlife Federation (U.S.)
Audubon Society (U.S.)
Defenders of Wildlife (U.S.)
The Wetlands Centre (Australia)
Beaver Institute (U.S.)
Incredible Wetlands (24 mins.)
What Are Wetlands? (3 mins.)
Wetlands: The Drain Game (26 mins.)
Wetlands: Mangroves, Marshes, and Bogs (20 mins.)
All About Ramsar Sites (4 mins.)
Animals on the Wetlands of the Nile (4 mins.)
Down to Earth: World Wetlands Day 2022 (7 mins.)
Bohemia: A Year in the Wetlands (50 mins.)
The Log: A Look at Wetland Wildlife (10 mins.)
Partners in Wetlands Restoration (10 mins.)
The Everglades: Follow the Water (10 mins.)
Developing a Blue Carbon Offset Project (13 mins.)
Agricultural Wetland Bank: Minnesota (3 mins.)
Congo Peatlands (7 mins.)
Pantanal Wetlands (8 mins.)
Wings and Wetlands: A Story of Migration (17 mins.)
Constructed Wetlands (10 mins.)
Wetlands by William Mitsch and James Gosselink (5th edition)
About Habitats: Wetlands by Cathryn and John Sill
Water Lands: A Vision for the World’s Wetlands and Their People by Fred Pearce and Jane Madgwick
Wetland Ecology: Principles and Conservation by Paul Keddy
Wetland Carbon and Environmental Management edited by Ken W. Krauss, Zhiliang Zu, and Camille L. Stagg
Let the Water Do the Work by Bill Zeedyk and Van Clothier
Creating and Restoring Wetlands: From Theory to Practice by Christopher Craft
The Beaver: Natural History of a Wetlands Engineer by Dietland Muller-Schwarze
Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year by David Carroll
Who Needs a Swamp? A Wetland Ecosystem by Karen Patkau
Wetlands Explained: Wetland Science, Policy, and Politics in America by William Lewis
Florida’s Wetlands by Ellie Whitney, Bruce Means, and Anne Rudloe
Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey Through Our Last Great Wetland by Rowan Jacobsen
Salt Marshes: A Natural and Unnatural History by Judith Weis and Carol Butler
Ramsar Wetlands: Values, Assessment, Management edited by Peter Gell, Nick Davidson, and Max Finlayson (not yet published)
Marshes and Swamps! With 25 Science Projects for Kids by J. K. O’Sullivan and Tom Casteel
Fun in the Mud: A Wetlands Tale by Sally Bolger and Regina Shklovsky
Meadowlands: A Wetlands Survival Story by Thomas Yezerski
Pantanal: Understand and Preserving the World’s Largest Wetland by Frederick Swarts
Lawyers, Swamps, and Money: U.S. Wetland Law, Policy, and Politics by Royal Gardner
Global Wetland Outlook: A Special Report 2021 by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
The Beaver Restoration Guidebook: Working with Beavers to Restore Streams, Wetlands, and Floodplains by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Goodreads list of books about wetlands
Ducks Unlimited Podcast
Ecobot Podcast (technology & wetlands science)
In the Reeds Podcast (Canada)
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