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Wetlands clean water, provide homes for wildlife across the nation

By: Michelle Banks
Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS

Wetlands play a crucial role in the world’s ecosystem by protecting and improving water quality, filtering surface water, storing floodwater and creating or enhancing wildlife habitat.

When water enters a wetland it slows down, allowing heavy sediments to drop to the wetland floor, enhancing the water quality running into nearby lakes and rivers. That cleaner surface water continues flowing at a slower speed, reducing flooding and erosion impacts to communities in its path.

Significant flooding in the Red River Valley, Minn., over the last few years and record flooding this year continues to cause damage to cropland and infrastructure.

“Flooding (here) is a huge issue,” Greg Bengtson, NRCS Glacial Ridge Wildlife Refuge project manager, said.
Glacial Ridge, which is in the valley, is the largest wetland restoration project in U.S. history, spanning about 30,000 acres in northwestern Minnesota.

“You’re looking at basically the size of a township,” Bengtson said. “That’s a huge area.”
NRCS’ Wetland Reserve Program is helping slow and store floodwaters in the area. Depending on the size, a wetland can store about one million gallons of water.

Research shows another restored wetland in the Prairie Pothole region of Minnesota can store over 23,000 acre feet of water—this is equivalent to six inches of water covering an area the size of Washington, D.C.

For communities who draw drinking water from waterways upstream, flooding can impact the quality of their drinking water.

Many cities have constructed man-made wetlands to help clean municipal wastewater and control flooding. Through man-made wetlands, the contaminants in water are naturally filtered by soil, plant roots and microorganisms, making it more cost effective and healthier alternative.

In addition to trapping floodwaters and filtering pollution, wetlands are home to many plants and animals, including threatened and endangered species. For migratory birds and other waterfowl, wetlands are critical to survival, and is continuously providing technical and financial support to improve wetlands habitat.

When the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill became apparent in spring 2010, NRCS experts recognized the critical need for wetland habitat for migrating birds. Through the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, NRCS works with private landowners to create wetlands along migratory bird paths, providing clean water and a healthy habitat for wildlife. Plants and aquatic organisms in those wetlands provide food for migratory birds on more than 470,000 voluntarily enrolled acres.

The restoration and protection of wetlands through the Wetland Reserve Program and the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, NRCS continues to help provide wetlands to bring positive impacts to people, wildlife and the environment.

For more information on creating wetlands under these programs, visit the Wetland Reserve Program or Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative pages on the NRCS website or a local USDA service center.