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Incorporating Wetland Restoration and Protection in Planning Documents

Wetland restoration and protection plays an important role in ecosystem health and watershed dynamics. Among their valuable services, wetlands recycle nutrients, filter certain pollutants, recharge groundwater, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife. Additionally, wetlands reduce peak flows and flood damage, store water, protect erodible shorelines, and provide recreational opportunities and amenities. There are multiple co-benefits to incorporating voluntary wetlands programs into plan documents.

Here are some functions and examples of planning documents and processes that include voluntary wetlands restoration and protection.

Flood Protection

Wetlands trap and then slowly release rainwater, snowmelt, groundwater, and floodwater. Trees and the roots of other plants slow the speed of runoff and distribute it over the floodplain. In urban areas, wetlands can collect and counteract the increased runoff from buildings, pavement, and other impervious surfaces. Riverine wetlands are especially useful in storing and holding flows, including peak flows, which tend to produce flood damage. For example, a 1972 Study on the hydrologic value of wetlands by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers demonstrated that if 8,400 acres of wetlands were removed from the Charles River Basin in Massachusetts, flood damages would increase by $17 million.

Voluntary wetlands restoration and protection can be incorporated into a wide range of flood planning activities including hazard mitigation plans and watershed plans. Selected resources and examples of incorporating voluntary wetlands restoration and protection in flood planning include:

  • Minnesota State Wetland Program – Minnesota's wetland program uses funding from a number of sources, such as the Clean Water & Legacy Amendment fund and the Natural Resources Trust Fund, to support voluntary restoration projects. In the Red River Valley in particular, voluntary wetland restoration supported by the State Wetland Program is included in flood and hazard mitigation planning.

Additionally, Minnesota, with its 10.6 million acres of wetlands, has been studying and monitoring their wetlands since the 1990’s with the help of Wetland Program Development Grants from EPA. To support their ambitious wetland goals, Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency developed a wetland monitoring and assessment approach using a Floristic Quality Assessment (FQA), a vegetation-based ecological condition assessment.

  • Floodplain Buyouts: An Action Guide for Local Governments on How to Maximize Community Resilience and Habitat Connectivity – This guide, created by the Environmental Law Institute and the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment, outlines resources available to assist state governments in conducting voluntary buyouts of floodplains as a way of mitigating flood damage.
  • Using Nature to Address Flooding – For an example of science-based guidance for flood planning using wetland restoration and protection, refer to Naturally Resilient Communities. The coalition using nature to address flooding provides helpful information about nature-based solutions, including voluntary wetlands restoration and protection.
  • Integrating Hazard Mitigation Into Local Planning – This compilation of case studies and tools produced by FEMA includes resources and best practices for integrating wetland restoration and protection and other approaches into local planning processes.

Streambank and Shoreline Protection

In bodies of freshwater, wetlands play an important role in mitigating erosion along rivers and lakes. By slowing the flow of water and retaining soil in their roots, wetlands maintain the integrity of banks. Additionally, these functions also help to retain and settle sediment, which can protect the stream bottom and reduce excess sediment in the water column. Similarly, coastal wetlands can prevent coastline erosion due to their ability to absorb the energy created by ocean currents which would otherwise degrade a shoreline and associated development.

Voluntary wetlands restoration and protection can be incorporated into a wide range of stream protection and planning activities and voluntary stewardship plans. Selected examples of incorporating voluntary wetlands restoration and protection in erosion and sediment control planning include:

  • Washington State Voluntary Stewardship Program - Skagit County, WA has embarked on a number of voluntary restoration projects through their Voluntary Stewardship Program. The county received assistance for numerous voluntary easements protecting wetlands to address the impact of agriculture and sedimentation on Chinook salmon.
  • Suisun Marsh Restoration Project – A restoration project used dredged sediments to restore 1,800 acres of tidal wetlands adjacent to the Suisun Marsh. Dredging and restoration were implemented in order to mitigate sedimentation from breaching dikes.

Water Quality

Wetlands improve water quality in nearby rivers and streams and have considerable value as filters for future drinking water. When water enters a wetland, it slows down and moves around wetland plants. Much of the suspended sediment drops out and settles to the wetland floor, and wetland plants transform pollutants and sediments by acting as natural filters, removing many types of pollutants including nutrients, biochemical oxygen demand, suspended solids, metals, and pathogens. These functions result in higher quality water downstream, allowing wetlands to play an important function in water quality planning.

Constructed wetlands are long-standing best management practice for managing non-point source pollution. Due to rapidly urbanizing areas and the negative impact of accelerated run-off on communities' waterways, it is becoming more important to consider the protection and restoration of naturally occurring wetlands and the existing services they provide. Using a patch-work of constructed wetlands and protection or naturally occurring wetlands can help local communities keep up with rapidly increasing pollutant loads.

Voluntary wetlands restoration and protection can be incorporated into a wide range of water quality planning activities including voluntary wetland monitoring programs and state wetland water quality standards. Selected examples of incorporating voluntary wetlands restoration and protection in water quality planning include:

  • Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Nonpoint Source Program - The Michigan DEQ Watershed Plan incorporates numerous efforts to improve the water quality in Lake Michigan. Among them, the state has approved and supported voluntary wetland restoration and protection plans, such as conservation easements co-operated by landowners and qualified conservation organizations.

Stormwater Management Plans

Urbanizing watersheds tends to coincide with the loss of wetlands and an increase in impermeable surfaces such as concrete, asphalt, and rooftops. These hard surfaces do not absorb water, increasing 

the volume of stormwater runoff and coastal storm surges. In addition to retaining stormwater and releasing it more gradually into the watershed, wetlands filter stormwater runoff and remove pollutants, further reducing the impact on the watershed and mitigating the risks posed downstream.

Voluntary wetlands restoration and protection can be incorporated into a wide range of stormwater management planning activities including coastal management plans and stormwater management plans. Selected examples of incorporating voluntary wetlands restoration and protection in stormwater planning activities include:

  • EPA Stormwater Planning Guide - This document describes how to develop a comprehensive long-term community stormwater plan that integrates stormwater management with communities' broader plans for economic development, infrastructure investment, and environmental compliance. Through this approach, communities can prioritize actions related to stormwater management as part of capital improvement plans, integrated plans, master plans, or other planning efforts.
  • Louisiana 2017 Coastal Master Plan – The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority Coastal Master Plan places significant emphasis on the value of Louisiana's wetlands in terms of direct economic benefit from activities such as fishing and tourism, as well as protection from storm surges and flooding, and their connection to Louisiana's cultural heritage. The plan and Louisiana state policy provides a number of resources for voluntary wetland restoration, including funding for easement agreements, private land restoration, technical assistance, and tax incentives.

For additional information about outreach conducted in connection with Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan, see the ASWM Wetland Communications Case Studies Project Report.