Here's what farmers need to know about wetlands

Here's what farmers need to know about wetlands

Wetlands, known as natural water filters, are vital to protecting water sources and supplies that our population uses for drinking water and our farmers use for production.

However, many of the wetlands that were once spread throughout the Midwest and other areas of the U.S. have been replaced with development as cities continue to grow or with farmland as producers seek to grow their operations.

That's why many interested parties have placed an emphasis on protecting wetlands as much as possible. For farmers, wetlands can provide many benefits, such as flood protection and carbon capturing.

Keep reading to find out what you need to know about this critical land resource.

What's a wetland?

A wetland, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, is an area of land where water is covering the soil, present at the soil surface, or is near the soil surface all year or for different periods of time throughout the year. How much water the ground is saturated with depends on soil development and what types of plants and animals are present on the land and in the soil.

Thanks to the presence of water, wetlands are able to support a wide array of both aquatic and terrestrial species. That water also can help specially adapted plants grow and wetland soils develop.

Types of wetlands

There are two types of wetlands: coastal and inland (also referred to as tidal and non-tidal). Coastal wetlands are located along the Atlantic, Pacific, Alaska and Gulf coasts. Obviously, these are not the types of wetlands Midwest farmers deal with. That's a good thing because they are located near where fresh water mixes with salt water, creating an environment in which it's difficult for plants to grow.

Inland wetlands are located in the floodplains of rivers and streams, in depressions that are surrounded by dry land, near lakes and ponds and in other low-lying areas where there is enough precipitation or water present that the soil becomes saturated.

Many of the wetlands farmers in the Midwest may encounter belong to the non-tidal marshes category. These are the most common and widely distributed type of wetland in North America. These marshes are typically fresh water, although some are brackish or alkaline, according to the EPA.

Non-tidal marshes are often found in poorly drained, shallow areas along lakes, ponds and rivers. The water depth in these is typically only a few inches up to three feet. Some non-tidal marshes, such as prairie potholes may dry out completely for periods of time.

Freshwater marshes are a vital ecosystem

Freshwater marshes are known to have high levels of nutrients, which make them a highly productive ecosystem - one of the most productive on earth, in fact. These nutrients help freshwater marshes support a very large amount of diverse animals and plants even though they may not cover a large area.

Aside from habitat support for these animals and plants, fresh water marshes can help reduce the damages done by flooding and can also filter excess nutrients from surface runoff that would otherwise enter water sources.

This is how wetlands have become recognized as natural water filters that should be protected. Research has shown that just one acre of Iowa wetland removes excess amounts of nitrogen in runoff from 100 acres of corn producing farmland.

How wetlands help improve water quality

Water quality is an issue many people in Iowa and other Midwest states care about deeply. Wetlands play an important role in improving water quality across the region.

It is critical that wetlands be protected because of how much they are used in the state - and other states in the Midwest - as natural protection for the water sources our population uses for drinking water and our farmers use for agricultural purposes.

By protecting wetlands, farmers can help the state ensure groundwater supplies are recharged. These wetland areas help keep water tables and stream-base flows at stable levels.

Wetlands can help farmland

Wetlands are beneficial to farmland, too. As Iowa State University Extension and Outreach points out, wetlands can protect neighboring and downstream properties from flood damage.

They can also be used as collection points for tile drainage systems.

Challenges faced by wetlands

Many types of wetlands, including fresh water marshes, have been reduced in size due to human development. The EPA states that some of the marshes have been degraded by too many nutrient deposits and sediment that has collected from farming and construction.

Wetlands must be preserved, though. In the case of fresh water marshes, severe flooding and heavier nutrient deposits are often reported after marsh destruction and degradation, according to the EPA.

Unfortunately, Iowa and other agriculture states are in the process of trying to find ways of rebuilding their wetlands. Iowa, as with other Midwest states, saw much of its 6 million estimated acres of wetlands drained by early homesteaders.

Only 11 percent of Iowa's original wetlands still exist today, according to Iowa State University, so many partnerships have formed seeking to rebuild wetlands.

Farmers can partner with others to protect wetlands

Not all the burden of re-establishing wetlands falls on farmers. In fact, public interest and support of wetland benefits have resulted in multiple private and public programs that can help agriculture producers not face the entire burden - which for them is often financial - of rebuilding wetlands.

Some of those programs, such as wetland mitigation banking in which a farmer is paid to maintain or establish a wetland in exchange for one being drained elsewhere, have become more widely adopted. There is also the Wetlands Reserve Program, which provides financial support for enhancing wetlands as a trade-off for ending production on marginally performing agricultural land.

Interested in learning more about wetlands?

Iowa State University recommends contacting your local soil and water conservation district office if you are interested in learning more about wetlands and how you can help support wetlands and their benefits on your land.

Midwest Land Management can also help you determine wetland protection strategies that may work on your farmland.

If you would like to continue following agriculture news and issues, then visit our blog.