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Learn to love the wet

April 17, 2020 by Ted Rulseh

I should have written this column a month ago, since February 2 was World Wetlands Day. The topic is also timely because the Oneida County Board on February 18 voted to reduce the setback for grading near wetlands from 15 feet to 5 feet.

I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of that decision. Instead, I’ll focus on why we need to protect wetlands. Some readers might ask: Why write about wetlands in a column that’s about lakes? The reason is that wetlands, lakes and rivers, and for that matter groundwater, are all one interconnected system. So what helps or harms one can help or harm the others.

As Adam Hinterthuer wrote in a blog on the UW Center for Limnology website, “Wetlands…are places that evolved to accommodate the unexpected — to receive floodwaters during heavy rains and to retain water during drought.” And that’s only part of their ecological function.

As a society we used to treat wetlands essentially as trash, filling them in with earth to make dry land for roads, homes and businesses, or for farmers to grow more crops. As a consequence our state has lost nearly half its wetlands since the 1800s, and we’ve paid a price for it. 

Without wetlands to soak up excess rainfall, water instead runs rapidly into rivers and streams, which overflow and cause flooding. To compensate we have to spend money build structures like retention ponds to capture the water and mitigate flood damage.

Wetlands ecological services well beyond flood control. The Wisconsin Wetlands Association website (www.wisconsinwetlands.org) is a great place to learn about wetlands and how they help us. Significantly, wetlands with their dense grasses and vegetation and their extensive network of roots help keep lakes and streams healthy by filtering out harmful sediment and pollutants. 

Wetlands are also havens for wildlife. The WWA reports that three-fourths of our state’s wildlife  depend on wetlands at some time in their lifecycles. They are places for some fish species (like northern pike) to spawn. Waterfowl and birds nest in wetlands. Migrating species stop off in them to rest and take refuge. Wetland plants and insects provide abundant food.

Wetlands are home to some 30 percent of our state’s rare and endangered species of plants and animals – they need the specialized wetland habitat to survive and reproduce. And let’s not forget recreation. Wetlands are great places for fishing, hunting, wildlife observation, birdwatching, paddling, and much more.

In addition, wetlands can help protect lake shorelines and stream banks from erosion by slowing down the flow of floodwater and lessening the impact of wind and wave action.

Some who have advocated for less wetland protection (including our own state legislature) like to say they’re only talking about “marginal” wetlands. But it turns out those wetlands, near urban areas or isolated in farm country, can be among the most important to preserve. 

All of us who love our lakes would be well served to learn more about how important wetlands are and how we benefit from their protection.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected]

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