A photo of the Lake Leelanau watershed wetlands

Wetlands 101: Protecting the Lake Leelanau Watershed Wetlands

We are continuing our series of educational Watershed Wednesdays with this feature on wetlands! Most of you have probably heard of wetlands, but what are they really? Why are they important? And what can you do to help protect the Lake Leelanau watershed wetlands?

Please, read the latest blog in our Watershed Wednesdays series to learn about this crucial feature and its importance in protecting Lake Leelanau’s water quality.

What is a Wetland?

Michigan law defines wetlands as “land characterized by the presence of water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances does support, wetland vegetation or aquatic life, and is commonly referred to as a bog, swamp, or marsh.” 

More easily put, wetlands are areas where water and land meet, and that can normally be areas where wetland or aquatic plants and animals can live. 

Wetlands may exist in many areas where you might not even see standing water. They could be in areas where the groundwater table is simply high. Three factors are used to determine whether an area is defined as a wetland: 

  1. water,
  2. wetland soils, and
  3. wetland vegetation. 

The soil is still saturated with water in these wetland areas where the groundwater table is high but not above the ground (i.e., there is no standing water) — this impacts the soil’s physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. 

This is the reason why wetland plants are distinct from terrestrial plants. They have unique adaptations that let them survive in water-saturated soils.

Types of Wetlands 

Due to this variability in soil characteristics, wetlands come in many forms. Here are a few common examples and defining attributes of wetlands:

  • Aquatic Bed: Areas of shallow permanent water dominated by plants that grow on or below the water’s surface. 
  • Bog: A peat-accumulating wetland with no significant inflow or outflow of ground or surface water and, because of its acidic nature, supports acidophilic vegetation, particularly Sphagnum mosses. 
  • Bottomland: Lowlands (usually forested) along streams and rivers that flood periodically. 
  • Estuary: A marsh system associated with the drowned mouth of a large river. 
  • Fen: A peat-accumulating wetland that receives some inputs of groundwater or drainage from surrounding mineral soils that typically results in alkaline waters and usually supports grass-like vegetation. 
  • Interdunal Swale Wetland: A wetland dominated by grass-like vegetation that occurs in the low areas between sand dunes or beach ridges along the Great Lakes shoreline.
  • Marsh: A frequently or continually inundated wetland characterized by grass-like and other emergent vegetation adapted to saturated soil conditions. 
  • Peatland: A generic term for any peat-accumulating wetland. 
  • Pothole: A shallow pond dominated by grass-like vegetation. 
  • Slough: A swamp or shallow lake system. 
  • Swamp: A wetland dominated by trees or shrubs. 
  • Wet Meadow: Grassland with saturated soil near the surface but without standing water for most of the year.
A graphic showing the water levels of wetlands, sourced by the US Geological Survey.
Source: US Geological Survey

Why are Wetlands Important?

As there are many types of wetlands, there are also many reasons why wetlands are important. Here are some of the functions and values of wetlands that make them crucial areas to protect.

  • Fish and wildlife habitat, especially for threatened and endangered species - the different ecosystems that wetlands provide create habitat for breeding, eating, resting, and hiding from predators.
  • Water pollution control - wetlands filter pollutants from entering the water through the uptake of nutrients by aquatic plants, the absorption of nutrients into the sediment, the deposition of residue, and chemical precipitation. 
  • Sediment control - sediment settles into wetlands and prevents lakes from being inundated with silt and sediment. 
  • Carbon storage - the chemical composition of wetlands allows for the storage of carbon that contributes to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the primary catalyst of climate change.
  • Erosion control - the root systems of plants in wetlands help keep the soil from eroding along the shoreline and absorb strong waves along the shoreline.
  • Water supply - since wetlands are close to the water table, they are a convenient water supply, often related to aquifers or natural springs.
  • Flood storage and conveyance - the wet soil of wetlands acts as a sponge during high-water or flood events, reducing flood damage in any nearby properties 
  • Recreation and aesthetic values - the wildlife, fish, and plants in wetlands provide a unique viewing experience for humans to take in the beauties of this unique ecosystem.

Lake Leelanau Watershed Wetlands

Now that you understand the essential values and functions of wetlands, you can see why preserving and protecting them is so important. Below is a map of the wetlands surrounding the Lake Leelanau watershed — these areas are integral in keeping Lake Leelanau clean and pure. Do you see a wetland area near where you live or recreate?

Lake Leelanau watershed wetlands vegetation map

How Can We Protect Our Wetlands?

Anything that alters the natural state of the wetland has an impact on its ecosystem function and value. Here are some examples of land use changes that damage wetlands: 

  • draining, 
  • filling, 
  • dredging, 
  • flooding, 
  • cutting vegetation, 
  • invasion of invasive species, 
  • use of harmful chemicals, and 
  • heavy recreational use (i.e., by recreational vehicles, bikes, heavy foot traffic, motorized boat wakes, etc.).

Preventing these activities is the most important thing you can do today to protect our wetlands. One of the most important things we must do is reduce development in wetland areas and allow these natural ecosystems to thrive independently.

In addition to limiting development in wetland areas, here are a few other ways in which one can support wetland areas:

  • Establish and maintain shoreline buffers or greenbelts,
  • Protect and enhance adjacent upland habitat,
  • Build fencing to prevent inappropriate use of wetlands by humans and livestock,
  • Control stormwater runoff,
  • Ensure proper functioning of septic systems,
  • Use fertilizers and pesticides wisely,
  • Manage recreation to limit overuse of wetlands, and,
  • Control invasive species.

We hope this brief crash course in wetlands helps educate you all on their importance and what you can do to protect them. If you are interested in learning more about the Lake Leelanau watershed wetlands, click here.

This information was sourced from “Michigan Wetlands – Yours to Protect: A Citizen’s Guide to Wetland Protection” by the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council and the Michigan Municipal Wetland Alliance.

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