March 2, 2022

Wetlands: A Powerful Tool for Conservation

Near the shores of Grand Lake St. Marys in northwest Ohio, you’ll find a series of peaceful walking paths winding around panoramic wetland areas that dot the landscape. You’ll most likely see a native flycatcher perching over the water, spot a painted turtle basking on a log and hear the soft crackle of cattail plants swaying in the breeze. 

But what you won’t see are the robust inner workings of a unique ecosystem serving to absorb, filter and reduce excess nutrients, sediment and other pollutants before they reach the lake. 

Wetlands are a vital component of healthy watersheds. When water enters a wetland, the wetland acts as a purifier, cleaning the water before it exits. Despite the innumerable benefits wetlands provide, over half of the original wetlands in the United States have been drained or converted for other uses. Historically, a majority of the wetlands within the Grand Lake St. Marys watershed have been altered or destroyed.  

In an effort to reconstruct some of these wetlands to enhance wildlife habitats and improve water quality, a series of wetland treatment cells were constructed near the shores of Grand Lake St. Marys in 2012 and 2015 following a distressed watershed ruling in 2011. 

(Photo:) A reconstructed wetland near Grand Lake St. Marys. Runoff water flows into a series of individual wetland cells, beginning with deep water cells that serve to settle out large physical particles like sand and silt. The water filters through a series of ever-increasingly shallow cells with a variety of vegetation that uptake potentially harmful dissolved nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. As a result, water quality is improved. 

Restoring wetlands to improve water quality

Dr. Stephen Jacquemin, a biology professor and research coordinator at Wright State University Lake Campus in Celina, Ohio, isn’t afraid to step into the shallow banks of one of these reconstructed wetlands. In fact, he does this weekly to collect water samples.

To assess their efficiency, Jacquemin and his students gather water samples that are later tested in the lab for nitrogen and phosphorus levels. 

“The way that wetlands function from a water quality perspective is effectively like one of a filtration system,” explains Jacquemin. “Water, either from a lake or a stream, or even just overland runoff, will flow into a wetland system. And then, through a series of biological and physical processes, the water will be effectively cleaned.”

It’s a process that is capable of removing 90% of dissolved nutrients and physical sediment, says Jacquemin. Through continuous monitoring since June 2017, Jacquemin’s work showcases wetlands as a powerful tool for conservation. The continued restoration and monitoring of wetland spaces are critical for improving water quality and environmental health in Ohio’s watersheds and beyond. 

(Photo:) Wright State University Lake Campus’s Agriculture and Water Quality Educational Center houses a dedicated research lab that allows staff and students to study the impacts of conservation practices on the water quality of Grand Lake St. Marys.

Conservation on the farm

Outside of the Grand Lake St. Marys watershed, most wetlands have been drained to expand either housing developments or farm fields. However, some of the low-lying areas that can’t be farmed productively can still provide a valuable resource for improving water quality. 

Because wetlands hold water within a watershed, they also help to reduce soil erosion and downstream flooding during wet seasons and minimize the impact of severe rain events. 

Stateler Family Farms, a Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network site, is just one Ohio farm that has restored a portion of its wetland areas on the farm. 

As a result of inconsistent crop production in a particular field with “potholes” (low-lying, frequently drowned out wet areas formed from glacial deposits), the Statelers worked with their local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to develop a plan to modify this portion of their field.

(Photo:) A look at the conservation plan map used to restore wetlands at Stateler Family Farms in McComb, Ohio.

A long-term economic analysis of this field determined that by removing the area from production, coupled with government cost share, the field would be more profitable. 

While taking a portion of field ground out of production might have brought skepticism, the Statelers were open to how they could address this problem on their farm while also making an impact on water quality.

The Statelers have since “squared off” this portion of their field to construct a wetland with wildlife and pollinator habitats surrounding it. 

“After years where there would be no crop harvested from the field’s wet areas, the Statelers worked with NRCS staff to construct a wetland with wildlife habitat surrounding it which, over the long run, will make that field more profitable.” – Aaron Heilers, Project Manager

With assistance from your local NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation District, or the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s H2Ohio project, wetlands can be created, enhanced or restored on your farm or property. 

To determine the economic impact of installing a wetland, download the Conservation Practice Economic Impact Calculator.

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