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There is a need for more wetlands in Iowa

By Staff | Jun 19, 2020

Farm News photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby A Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland is shown here at the Land Improvement Contractors Association farm in central Iowa. CREP is a state, federal, local, and private partnership that provides incentives to landowners who voluntarily establish wetlands for water quality improvement in the tile-drained regions of Iowa.



It is no secret thousands of acres of Iowa’s land has long been converted over to agricultural use from its original landscape of a wetland. What may come as a surprise is just how much of our farmland was once a wetland.

Kay Stefanik, assistant director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center highlighted the importance of wetlands in celebration of American Wetlands month that was celebrated in May.

“At one time, there were approximately four million acres of wetlands throughout the state,” she said. “Today, we only have about 420,000 acres of wetlands remaining. That’s about 89-90% loss of wetland habitat over the last few centuries.”

Although there is tremendous loss of wetlands throughout the entire state, Stefanik said the largest losses have been in the Des Moines lobe.

“At one point, it was referred to as 1,000 lakes region because there were so many wetlands on the landscape,” she said. “Today, we have seen about a 99% reduction in the wetlands in the Des Moines lobe – it’s completely gone. A lot of this has to do with agriculture uses of the land- a conversion of wetlands to agricultural use.”

Why does the loss of wetlands matter?

Stefanik said wetlands are important because of the ecosystem services they provide.

“They provide essential direct and indirect benefits to humans,” she said. “These wetland ecosystem services include flood prevention, water quality improvement and provide wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities as well as food and fiber.”

How water moves throughout a landscape

Stefanik described a watershed as an area of land that has a series of connected stream and rivers that ultimately flow out that area through one location.

“This is the place where water will pour out of the system it’s the pour point.”

If you have wetlands scattered throughout the watershed, these wetlands basins can act to store excess storm water and prevent it from immediately being transported downstream.

“By holding the water on the landscape, this can help reduce flooding near that pour point as well as reduce flood severity at that pour point and through the watershed,” she said. “When you reduce flooding and flood severity, you also reduce economic loss associated with that flood.”

Stefanik said there has been a rise of flooding events in recent times. Although due to an increase in precipitation, the landscape just isn’t capable of handling those amounts of precipitation.

“The wetlands we currently have on the landscape, the 420,000 acres aren’t capable of providing the flood benefits that we need to really see any difference in current flooding rates,” she said.

There is a solution.

“We can go out and create and restore wetlands,” she said.

Created and restored wetlands will function very similarly to a natural wetland, according to Stefanik.

“They will be able to provide the same flood mitigation benefits as a natural wetland would be able to provide,” she said.

Water Quality improvement

Why are nutrients a problem? And why should we care about reducing nutrients in our waterways?

“One of the biggest things has to do with drinking water,” said Stefanik. “The EPA standard for drinking water nitrate levels is 10 parts per million. When you start having high nitrate levels you have to implement additional procedures in your drinking water treatment plants to meet the EPA standards.”

Stefanik said wetlands can be used to help control nitrate loss.

“A lot of nutrients coming out of Iowa are coming from agricultural runoff and in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, wetlands are listed as an accepted nutrient reduction practice for nitrates,” she said. “When you have an appropriately placed wetland, you are typically going to see around 50% nitrate reduction if we have a wetland that is between an agricultural field and a stream or river, that the tile line drainage normally has been allowed to drain straight in to.”

By putting the tile line water into a wetland, Stefanik said the wetland gives a place to reduce nitrates through a microbial act.

Ecosystem services of a wetland

Wildlife, Stefanik said can be considered an ecosystem service of a wetland.

“We have a wildlife habitat,” she said. “Wetlands provide food, shelter, as well as nesting and burrowing habitat for a variety of different types of wildlife. This includes wildlife that has its entire life in Iowa, as well as migratory wildlife such as birds migrating through.”

Specifically in Iowa, wildlife you might see in wetlands include common green darners; various types of dragonflies; damselflies; different types of water fowl including mallards, great blue heron, Canada geese; frogs and other amphibians like salamanders and reptiles like painted turtles, snapping turtles.

“These organisms might be using wetlands throughout their entire lifespan – they might be using it for part of their life cycle. Or you might just see them as they are passing through,” she said.

Recreational activities as well as food and fiber are also ecosystems services that are benefits of a wetland.

Stefanik said there is a potential for increased revenue associated with recreation as well as ecotourism in a wetland.

As far as the benefits of food and fiber, Stefanik said you may automatically think of waterfowl to hunt in wetlands, but there’s more.

“There are plants to be used as food such as wild rice,” she said. “It can be cultivated.”

As far as fiber, Stefanik said there are some projects that aren’t done too much today, but using dried cattail leaves, and willow shoots to make various household goods such as bowls, mats and cushions are possible from those plants grown in wetlands.

“All of these ecosystem services, the flood prevention, nutrient reduction, food, fiber, recreational activities and wildlife habitat can potentially benefit all Iowans and these benefits come not just from natural wetlands, but also created and restored wetland habitats,” she said.

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