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Carbon Capable Wetlands: Wastelands to Wonderlands

Partners across California are collaborating to celebrate Healthy Soils Week 2019.

Healthy Soils Week-#1

NRCS is happy to partner with groups across California to recognize Healthy Soils Week 2019 to sustain this vital resource.



Wetland soils can contain over 40 percent organic matter while many California soils contain 2 percent or less. 

While celebrating healthy soils week (#HSW2019) and the many roles soil plays in our ecosystem—including carbon storage--wetlands deserve special mention.

Wetland easement-1Before the 1970’s wetlands were often seen as wastelands.  Since then we have discovered their productive and dynamic roles in our ecosystem: Wetlands store surface and subsurface water to prevent flooding, provide groundwater recharge, wildlife habitat, water purification, and a recreational playground for educators and nature lovers.

Left: NRCS Wetland Easement in Sutter County

Wetlands also play a major role in the global carbon cycle providing a sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide and the potential to help abate global warming. Wetlands with their lush aquatic vegetation and habitat for hundreds of species, have an outsized role in carbon capture relative to their small proportion of land area—holding as much as 25 percent of global terrestrial carbon. Unfortunately, more than 90 percent of California’s 5 million acres of historic wetlands have been drained.

For the last 27 years, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in California has been mitigating this trend.

The Agency now has Wetlands Reserve Easements (WRE) on about 130,000 acres of wetlands, established voluntarily with private landowners and Tribes who work with NRCS to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands and their ecological values.           

Soil organic matter accumulation in wetlands has been estimated to accrete at a rate of 0.23 to 0.406 inch per year or 2,926 to 5,175 pounds of carbon per acre per year. This means California’s 130,000 acres of WRE wetland easements pull 190,000 - 340,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year—and this is on top of the high amount of carbon already stored in these soils!  Wetland soils, like the one pictured above, can contain over 40 percent organic matter while an upland soil in California may contain 2 percent or less.  

Wetland easement-2Drainage and degradation of wetlands can release significant amounts of this stored carbon back into the atmosphere in the form of methane and reduce the ability of wetlands to sequester additional carbon.

Right: Wetland Soil

Better management practices can help protect these stores of carbon and the ability of wetlands to sequester it. The NRCS Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) Program plays an important role in California to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands and the soils they house.

In 2018 California celebrated 25 years of easements 2019 NRCS Planner - 25 Years of Conservation Easements (PDF; 4.3 MB). Nationwide, NRCS has enrolled more than 22,000 easements covering more than 4.4 million acres over the past 25 years and has invested $4.3 billion in financial and technical assistance.