Wetlands of all types play critical roles in flood protection for farmland and municipalities, the water quality of surface and underground water tables and habitat for wildlife.
“Wetlands grab water and slow it down,” said Tracy Hames, executive director of Wisconsin Wetland Association. “They reduce erosion and capture sediment. They support native vegetation and enhance trout habitat. If you lose them (wetlands), you lose the trout stream.”
Hames presented a program about the importance of wetlands at the June 13 Friends of the Black River meeting. As WWA’s executive director since 2012, Hames travels the state to help communities understand how wetlands can be solutions to habitat degradation, diminished water quality and flooding.
“Wetlands are the areas between the places that are always dry and the lands that are always wet,” Hames said, “and isolated wetlands are where water flows in but doesn’t appear to flow out.”
He described the various types of wetlands, ranging from the temporarily wetland such as ephemeral ponds to forested wetlands such as marshes and swamps.
“Ephemeral ponds catch snowmelt and are among the most under-appreciated and unrecognized wetlands, but they are some of the most important for managing water,” he said.
Isolated wetlands are natural habitats that don’t seem to be connected to other surface waters such as streams, rivers or lakes. The state’s wetlands are a varied mix of vegetation and wildlife biomes.
“From a wetland standpoint, we have some of the most diverse wetlands in the country,” he said.
In the Driftless region, many wetlands are located in higher elevations above streams and rivers. When these wetlands are drained, they no longer serve as holding ponds for snow melt or rain waters.
“Water comes off the Driftless area faster than it ever has, leading to flashier floods and blowing out culverts and roads,” he said. “Wetland loss leads to gully formation. Where we have impaired waterways, we’ve lost wetlands.”
Wisconsin has five million acres of wetlands, half the amount Wisconsin had before Europeans settled in the state. Of the remaining five million acres, more than 20 percent are identified as isolated wetlands.
Hames discussed the how state sponsored legislation concerning wetlands will impact the environment as well as human development.
The Legislature passed a comprehensive law in 2001 to protect isolated wetlands. Because isolated wetlands are not thought to be connected to navigable waters, they fall under the state’s jurisdiction rather than the federal government’s authority.
When it was first introduced, the 2018 Wisconsin Wetlands bill originally eliminated any local control of isolated wetlands, exempting every isolated wetland from permitting and removing any protection of the habitats.
Sportsmen’s and other conservation groups joined WWA in education legislators about the importance of protecting wetlands and how the legislation could create a more complex permitting process than previously required.
Through the work of wetland supporters, the statewide exemption was narrowed to only allow the filling of wetlands in incorporated areas and farmlands. The bill also kept the mitigation requirement, which requires the wetland function for flood water storage, water quality protection, fish and wildlife habitat and groundwater recharge be replaced.
“Legislation is important, but there’s a need to go beyond protection,” he said. “We need to restore hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands and bigger is not always better.”
Though disappointed certain isolated wetlands won’t receive protection, Hames said one of the more positive aspects of the legislation was the creation of a council to identify and address regulatory issues.
WWA works to educate state residents about the hazards of developing on wetlands. Such development can result in unstable building foundations and wet basements.
With 75 percent of the state’s wetlands located on private lands, WWA is working with property owners to restore and protect the wetlands of all sizes on their land.
Fifty years ago, WWA was the first statewide wetlands association in the country. The organization envisions a state where wetlands are healthy, plentiful and support ecological and societal needs, and where citizens care for, appreciate and interact with the natural treasures.
Hames’ presentation was part of FBR’s ongoing mission to bring educational programs about environmental issues, conservation and enjoyment of the natural world to the community.
For more information about FBR, email email@example.com.