Wetland Protection

Wetlands are special areas where water and land come together; where plants can have wet feet while still enjoying a breeze. Wetlands are a gathering place for both upland and aquatic wildlife, providing the most productive habitat possible. Benefits include:

Healthy Wildlife

Wetlands are an essential habitat for many types of ducks, geese, swans, herons, shorebirds, frogs, turtles, snakes, mink, otter, beaver, muskrat, and other animals. Wetlands also provide spawning and feeding areas for fish, and homes for rare plants and insects. Wetlands are the base of several major food webs. In the Great Lakes region, a large percentage of endangered species depend on wetland habitats for their survival. Wetlands include wet meadows and open marshes, as well as forested swamplands.

Healthy Tourism

In Wisconsin, the tourism industry is worth $21.6 billion a year. Many people recreate in Wisconsin primarily because of its natural beauty, waterfront scenery, clean water, abundant wildlife, and many opportunities for waterfowl hunting and fishing. Wetlands contribute significantly to these benefits. International wetland tourist arrivals reached 982 million in 2011 and topped one billion in 2012, generating over $1 trillion in US dollars, in international tourism receipts. It is estimated that half of all tourists travel to wetlands, particularly coastal areas.

Commercial Fishing

Wetlands are necessary to sustain the Great Lakes commercial fishing industry, as many valuable fish species depend on wetlands as spawning and feeding areas. Many of the food plants, insects, and small fish that they feed on also depend on wetlands. If not for the PCB contamination, the Green Bay fishery has been estimated to be worth $50 million per year.

More than a century ago, the Bay of Green Bay was considered one of the top three commercial fisheries in the Great Lakes (along with the west end of Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay) because it was so productive. Hundreds of commercial fishing companies and fish processing houses operated on the Bay shores. Much of that productivity was due to the extensive marshlands of southern Green Bay. Scientists consider the Bay to be the largest freshwater estuary in the United States, because the bay water levels fluctuate due to a tide-like "seich" (pronounced "saysh") created by wind pressures on the bay. Seiches push the Bay water into the marshes, then drain back out, creating a very active and fertile zone of fish habitat. The system is still very productive, but is badly contaminated with toxic PCB’s and mercury, which are picked up and concentrated by fish. If the PCBs and other pollutants are cleaned up, the commercial fisheries can be fully restored.

Water Filtration

Wetlands help maintain clean, clear water. Healthy wetland plants create dense carpets of roots and stems, which extend deeply into the marsh soils and sediment. These roots and stems are constantly pulling in nutrients from the surrounding water and particles become trapped in the root structure, gradually building up rich marsh soils. This activity has a filtering effect. When polluted water passes through a marsh, it is much cleaner when it exits. Modest amounts of excess manure or fertilizer runoff (phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium) can be filtered out if it first passes through a wetland before it reaches a river and lake. Even some toxic pollutants can become trapped in a marsh matrix and be pulled out of direct circulation (this may be toxic to marsh wildlife, however.) At the same time, wetland plants release oxygen into the water, which is necessary for fish survival.

Flood Control

Wetlands are very helpful in reducing flash floods. The dense root structure of marsh plants can act as a sponge, soaking up extra rainfall and releasing it only slowly. A watershed (the land area which drains toward a lake or stream) that has many wetlands along its drainage ways will seldom experience flooding. Flows will increase gradually with rain and will not reach the sudden, damaging high levels seen with flash floods. On the other hand, numerous studies have found that when a watershed is developed with many hard surfaces (streets, driveways, parking lots, roofs, etc.) the runoff is much more rapid. When wetlands are filled, and the stream sides are hardened and straightened with rock or concrete, the runoff flows even faster, never having the chance to soak in. Some communities are creating new marshes along drainage ways, to slow the water down and prevent the high social and economic costs of flooding. Other communities have ordinances to protect existing wetlands upstream, to prevent future flooding problems.

Wisconsin Losses

At the time of the early European settlement, more than 10 million acres of wetland were found in what now constitutes Wisconsin. Unfortunately, Wisconsin has lost more than 50% of its original wetland acres, with some populous counties having lost much more. Development pressures and highway projects continue to chip away at the remaining wetlands.

Scientists report that on lower Green Bay, more than 90% of its original wetlands are gone. The entire north end of the City of Green Bay is built on wetland fill. The Highway 43 expansion in the 1970s over the mouth of the Fox River took hundreds of acres more. The Bayport Project on the west Bay Shore destroyed a 700-acre wetland parcel in the 1960s and 1970s. Only remnants remain, which need careful protection.

Historians report that a century ago, northeast Wisconsin waterfowl migrations would turn the skies black with huge clouds of Tundra Swans, geese and ducks moving through the area. They would stop at the extensive marshes at the mouth of the Fox River, to rest and feed, before continuing on their way. Today's migrations are much smaller by comparison, because too many of the wetlands have been destroyed.

On March 28th, 2018, Governor Scott Walker signed Assembly Bill 547 into law further reducing protection for small wetlands. Writing for a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, David D. Haynes writes “Assembly Bill 547 would upend 16 years of careful management of isolated wetlands in the state. The proposed law seeks to repeal what was put in place by a bipartisan act of the Legislature after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2001 that said federal clean water laws didn’t allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to regulate wetlands that weren’t connected to a stream or river.”

Links about Wetlands

Wisconsin Wetlands Association - http://wisconsinwetlands.org/

Wisconsin Waterfowl Association - https://www.wisducks.org/

Wetland Dredge and Fill Regulations - http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/cwa/dredgdis/

The Society of Wetland Scientists - http://www.sws.org/

The Association of State Wetland Managers - https://www.aswm.org/

© Clean Water Action Council

P.O. Box 9144

Green Bay, WI 54308

(920) 421-8885

Office location:
A307 MAC Hall, UW-Green Bay
2420 Nicolet Drive
Green Bay, WI 54311