If I were to tell you to close your eyes and describe what comes to mind when you hear the word “wetland,” what would you describe? A stagnant, slimy waterbody? A grassy, soupy area with cattails? Maybe that lower field that you can only make hay on every few years? How about that special place that you love to hunt ducks, or trap muskrats? You may have an archery stand on the edge of a swamp that comes to mind. You might describe that spot in your woods that pools water each spring, and for one or two warm nights a year is just crawling with toads or salamanders as they congregate to lay masses of eggs. (Go to a local vernal pool, pond, swamp or wetland on a warm, spring evening and pull up a chair and just listen and watch. There is NOTHING that can compare to the sound you will hear if the frogs or toads have congregated!)
Truth is, these could all be examples of wetlands. Wetlands can be found in almost any type of terrain or land use, and they serve valuable functions in all of them. This may be a little bit contrary to popular belief. A common phrase that I hear at work when asking about the presence of wetlands is “Nope, no wetlands here. No cattails growing!” typically accompanied by a knowing smile.
What many people may not realize is that there are hundreds of plants that could indicate wetland presence. However, in order to have a true wetland, you need to have not only the predominance of plants adapted to living in these wet conditions, but also the correct (known as hydric) soil indicators, as well as indicators of hydrology. Those three criteria must all be present for an area to be considered a wetland, under normal circumstances. It is this specific combination of soils, vegetation and hydrology that make wetlands such unique and valuable areas.
The EPA defines wetlands as: “Those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration to support, and that under normal circumstances to support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas.”
What does THAT mean?
It basically means that the land will exhibit plants that are adapted to living in wet conditions. These plants will look different than the plant communities that surround the wetland. They may grow on hummocks above the water or may show roots that thrust the plant up out of the water, or could be plants that grow IN water, depending on the plant species. The soils will show indication of water fluctuation throughout the year. The shifting water table will strip iron from the soil, leaving rust spots or grey/blue/orange clay as the oxygen in the soil is reduced. Remember the third indicator — hydrology? That simply means evidence of water being present. This could be standing water, mud, muck, dead plant material, drift lines, seeps, etc.
Now, in my line of work, I typically encounter people who see wetlands as a thing that stands between them and their end goal (typically either agriculture use, or just a nice, neat piece of land that they can mow). “I pay taxes on that land, and I can’t use it” is a common phrase that I hear. So, what CAN wetlands do for you?
Wetlands serve many valuable functions. They act as a sponge to soak up and slowly release water during storm events i.e. reduce flooding (READ: Wetlands CAN lessen the impact of flooding!). In flat, low lying river and creek bottom areas they act as extra space for water to come up out of the stream banks and spread out; this slows velocity and reduces erosive force. Sometimes referred to as “Nature’s Kidneys” they act as a filter to allow sediment, nutrients and even heavy metals to be cleaned out of stormwater.
In some areas they act as a ground water recharge area, taking water to the water table (your well). In other areas, they develop as freshwater springs pop out of the ground. They are essential for thousands of different types of amphibians, fish, reptiles, waterfowl, and mammals in different stages of their life cycle, if not their entirety.
Wetlands are one of the most biodiverse areas on our landscape. Many people enjoy wetlands on their property just for the wildlife viewing opportunities alone. If you are a hunter of any type, you probably already know that wetlands are often some of the best hunting opportunities for many game species. Compare the quantity of animals and variety of different species you see in a manicured lawn vs a wetland/swamp. There is NO comparison.
Whether or not you buy into Climate Change, wetlands do sequester carbon and can lock it away for hundreds of years, which is certainly not a bad thing.
While not often commonly used to produce an agricultural crop in Bradford County, in other areas of the world wetlands are absolutely necessary for production of many different types of food crops (such as rice) and other products. In coastal areas, wetlands can help with alleviating storm surge from incoming ocean storms.
If you were to do a pro vs con sheet on wetlands, I think you would find that for wetlands in natural areas, the pros definitely outweigh the cons.
If you are a person that values wetlands and all the benefits that they bring and would like to see a new wetland area created on your property, we would like to hear from you.
The Bradford County Conservation District currently has a grant to create two new wetland areas, and if there is significant interest, will consider pursuing more grant opportunities for wetland creation and enhancement.
The Bradford County Conservation District is committed to helping people manage resources wisely. You can visit the Bradford County Conservation District at 200 Lake Rd in Wysox across from the Wysox Fire Hall. Contact us at (570) 485-3144 or visit our web page at www.bccdpa.com.