Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

Salameander: Of Wetland Restoration, Climate Adaptation, and Local Watershed Solutions

It is exciting to hear about a tangible example of the application of wetland strategies to address local issues and goals.   Here is one recently showcased on an ASWM webinar presentation by Matt Meersman of Friends of the St. Joe River.

Friends of the St. Joe is a non-profit group dedicated to improving habitat, water quality, and overall management of the St. Joseph River –  which wanders through agricultural and urban areas of Michigan and Indiana before reaching Lake Michigan.  This is a story about how far-sighted folks at “Friends” have teamed with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), and a number of other partners to tackle one important local issue using wetland mapping and assessment methods, an understanding of wetland ecological services, and good local communication.


Here are the background facts:

  • Great Lakes water levels are currently near all-time lows.   The Great Lakes fluctuate on a long term (multi-decade) cycle, and most – although not all – models predict further long term decline in response to climate change.
  • MDEQ has been working for some time to map wetlands on a watershed basis using the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service –National Wetland Inventory Plus/LLWW landscape level assessment method.  (See link at end of blog post.)  The result portrays not only wetland location, but general functions and ecosystem services based on wetland type, hydrology, and landscape position.  And, by comparing historic and current wetland maps, one can also evaluate loss of wetland function, as well as potential sites for restoration of function.

  • The St. Joseph River watershed has lost 53% of the wetland area that existed prior to European settlement, and about 49% of sediment retention function provided by pre-settlement wetlands.
  • A significant amount of existing and potentially restorable wetland – and associated sediment retention function – is located on large parcels of land. The opportunity for successful preservation or restoration may be greatest when working with a limited number of large landowners.  These landowners can include state and local government agencies, farms, businesses, individuals, and conservation groups.

  • Given modern sediment loads, frequent and extensive harbor dredging is needed to maintain many river mouth areas for both commercial and recreational boat traffic.  Current low water levels have exacerbated this impact.  Cessation of dredging would have a devastating impact for commercial barge traffic.  In February, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder proposed expenditure of $11 million in 2013 to dredge Michigan harbors that are in danger of losing their connections to open water because of low Great Lakes levels.

Putting it all together:

  • Planners from Friends of the St. Joe, local units of government, and the regional planning commission understand that restoration of wetlands in targeted watershed areas will increase sediment retention – providing an improvement in water quality in the St. Joe River, and over time reducing the amount of sediment that needs to be dredged to maintain the harbor.  Wetland preservation will also help to maintain sediment retention levels.  Using LLWW maps to show specific areas where this approach may be effective, resource planners have piqued the interest of the St. Joseph River Harbor Authority according to Matt Meersman, who has led the wetland partnership project.  Discussions are underway regarding the potential to utilize a portion of funds available for dredging proactively to reduce sediment loads at the source through wetland restoration.  Partners are continuing to analyze the extent of possible benefits in greater detail.  Preliminary discussions are also underway with other harbors in the area.
  • Local resource managers are, of course, pursuing multiple goals for the St. Joseph watershed, and using the LLWW data to help plan and set priorities.  Wetland restoration for one purpose will typically help to address others, including wildlife habitat, water quality, biodiversity, floodplain management, and recreation.  All of which adds up to a potential win-win-win situation.
  • The financial and technical support of state and federal agencies, combined with the innovation and land use know-how of multiple local partners adds up to a no-regrets approach to wetland and watershed management.  Regardless of the actual future impact of climate change on Great Lakes water levels and stormwater/runoff patterns, increased sediment retention and decreased dredging will provide both economic benefits for the shipping industry, and protection of public resources.

Friends of the St. Joe and their partners are currently looking in greater detail at the potential extent of sediment retention and likelihood of success.


You can view Matt Meersman’s full PowerPoint presentation (audio to be added soon) here.

More information on the Friends of the St. Joe – Wetland Partnership Project is here.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fact Sheet on the LLWW methodology used by the DEQ is described here:

The MDEQ wetlands program can be found here.

This is but one example of problem solving using National Wetland Inventory Plus maps combined with state and local know how to address a wide range of resource management issues.  We look forward to hearing about many similar reports as we think through climate change issues.

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