July 12, 2016

Saga of the Wetland

Underappreciated and Misunderstood
Blog saga of wetland Blog saga of wetland

So what is the big deal with wetlands anyway? Aren’t they just mucky, algae-filled, mosquito breeding grounds? Well, sometimes yes! They can be mucky, they can be algae-filled, and they can definitely be places mosquitos grow. But wetlands are more than that: they are an essential resource, providing a number of ecological and economic benefits.  This is why the regulators love them and Westwood works so diligently to manage their role in land and energy development projects. 

Have you ever wondered why some lakes in Minnesota are crystal clear and others look like grandma’s pea soup? There are many ecological and geological reasons, but one of the primary drivers of the pea soup look - known as a hypereutrophic state - is an excess input of nutrients (namely phosphorus and nitrogen) from the surrounding environment. Many things can cause increases in nutrient inputs to lakes, including grass clippings, Fido’s poop, and stormwater runoff, and what really compounds these factors is the removal of wetlands from the surrounding landscape.

In Minnesota, over 52% of the historic wetland area has been drained or filled for agricultural uses and urban development. Research has demonstrated that the removal of wetland acreage is one of the leading reasons for the decline in water quality across the country. Wetlands act as ecological kidneys; wherein plants, microbes, and invertebrates uptake, utilize, cycle, and store sediment and nutrients through physical, biological, and chemical processes (see figure below). In doing so, they keep your favorite fishing or cabin lakes – and even stormwater ponds - clean and clear!  Studies have even demonstrated that healthy lakes, streams, and wetlands can increase property desirability and value (Mahan 1997, Michael et al. 1996).

Blog saga of wetland nutrient processing Blog saga of wetland nutrient processing

In addition to their ability to filter and retain pollutants, wetland vegetation and topography help to slow floodwaters, reducing their velocity and volume and thus reducing their erosive and damaging capacity. Wetland vegetation also acts as carbon sinks, sequestering carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere for long-term storage. Furthermore, wetlands provide educational and recreational opportunities by supporting habitat for fisheries, migratory birds, and copious other wildlife. Did you know that wetlands support an abundance and diversity of life on par with rainforests and coral reefs?! All of this is why wetlands are so important.

Westwood’s team of environmental and water resource scientists appreciate the value of wetlands and balance them with development plans.  Several employees even spend their free time in wetlands! For instance David Kuhlman, Joe Fox, and Kristine Maurer all participate in the Wetland Health Evaluation Program (WHEP). As team leaders of WHEP, Kuhlman and Maurer demonstrate sampling protocols and teach volunteers how to identify aquatic invertebrates and plants found in wetlands. Fox and other volunteers help collect the data that is used by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to track wetland health in the Twin Cities. Planners and resource managers also use this data to inform land use decisions in their respective cities.  

Wetland regulation can sometimes pose significant challenges for development projects; but Westwood’s team of environmental scientists are experts. They help developers navigate the robust regulatory climate surrounding wetlands, and skillfully provide complete and accurate wetland services while supporting a balanced ecosystem and enabling smart and sustainable land development. This allows developers to maximize plans while also promoting water quality and wetland health.

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