Wetlands are lands where water saturation is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities. Other common names for wetlands are sloughs, ponds, and marshes. Click the image to view it larger.
While wetlands are a small percentage of the area in Utah (approx 1%) they have many important functions and benefits in our environment. 75% of those wetlands surround the Great Salt Lake.
FUNCTIONS OF A WETLAND
Wetlands play an important role in a watershed. They help to regulate and control the different physical, chemical, and biological properties within each one.
- Flood control- Wetlands act as sponges by capturing, storing, and slowly releasing water over weeks and months.
- Coastal protection- Wetlands act as storm buffers. Roots hold soil in place and stalks reduce the energy from storm waves and wind.
- Groundwater recharge- Water from wetlands -like beaver ponds- seeps into the ground, recharging aquifers.
- Sediment traps- Wetland vegetation can slow water velocity and particles settle out as velocity decreases. Pesticides, heavy metals, and other potentially harmful residues can settle out. Too much sediment in water can cause clogged gills in aquatic animals, and fluctuations in water temperature.
- Waste treatment- Wetlands have a high rate of biological production that leads to a large waste consuming capacity. Also, sediment deposition buries waste and bacterial activity can break down and neutralize waste.
- Pollution interception- Wetland plants can take up and filter pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous. Some pollutants settle into the soil and are chemically reduced over time while other pollutants may be processed by bacteria.
- Biological production- As a whole, wetlands outproduce any other type of environment, even tropical rain forests. Wetlands cover approximately 6% of the earth's surface, but they account for 24% of total global productivity.
- Habitat- Wetlands provide food, shelter, resting places, or predatory opportunities to a variety of animals.
Not only do wetlands help out by preserving the properties of a watershed and providing important elements for plants and wildlife, they also can be very directly beneficial to humans. They provide important things for our economy as well as our heritage.
Recreation, Aesthetics, and Education
Wetlands support a diverse habitat for wildlife and picturesque scenery for recreation. Birdwatching, canoeing, fishing, hunting, photography, and hiking are all recreational activities that can be enjoyed at wetlands.
Wild rice and cranberries are both grown in wetlands. Wetland soils are rich in nutrients, high in organic matter, and generally less erosive than other soils. Wetlands that have been drained and converted into agricultural land or wetlands that are under cultivation during dry periods in the United States provide over 25% of all major crops. Once wetlands are permanently drained the conditions that created productive soils are lost as well.
Cultural Heritage and Archaeological Evidence
Anaerobic conditions (conditions without oxygen) create thick layers of organic materials that slow down the decomposition process. These layers can preserve artifacts such as clothing, pottery, and even human remains, which allows archaeologists to study the cultures and lifestyles of ancient peoples. Because of these anaerobic conditions information about the dietary nuances, clothing, building styles, and artwork are studied and help piece together a history of lost civilizations.
Timber and Fiber Harvest
Wetlands have dense stands of vegetation with rapid growth rates which support wood and fiber industries. Until recently, draining and clear-cutting wetlands was a normal practice. Now, sustainable, selective cutting and vigorous replanting practices have become more common.
Peat from wetlands can be harvested, dried and burned for electrical power. Peat mining can have environmental impacts including compromised local water quality, unchecked storm runoff and habitat destruction.
- Utah Division of Water Quality Wetland Program
- Utah Geological Survey - Utah Wetland Information Center
- Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission
- Natural Resource Conservation Service
- Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
- Great Salt Lake Wetland Preserve
- Wetland Plants of the Great Salt Lake, A Guide to Identification, Communities, & Bird Habitat
- World Wetland Day
- Wondering where to visit wetlands in Utah? - Here are some ideas!