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

The Compleat Wetlander: Getting Wetland Restoration Done Right

By Jeanne Christie

“…nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.”

― Julia Child

At the Association of State Wetland Managers we’re always looking for news about wetlands.  Sometimes it seems like almost every day we come across a new story or report highlighting the importance of wetland protection and restoration for a whole variety of reasons from reducing the impacts of drought and floods to storing carbon to protecting coastal areas from erosion to supporting wildlife and ensuring clean water.

cw11614-2vernalWorld’s Wetlands Play Key role as carbon sinks

Wetlands International calls for integrated water and wetland management to reduce disaster risk

Staring Down the California Drought: Looking at Solutions to Our Water Crisis

We agree that wetlands are essential to protecting people and the environment and we’re delighted that more and more studies are emphasizing the importance of wetlands.

However, we are concerned that the identification and application of best practices for successfully restoring wetlands are lagging behind the recognition of their importance.  We see report after report that wetlands restored to replace wetlands destroyed (mitigation) are not operating (functioning) at the same level as natural wetlands.

Compensatory Mitigation: Success Rates, Causes of Failure, and Future Directions

And we are also concerned that little data is collected to determine whether voluntary restoration projects are successful.

If wetland restoration is going to be undertaken to accomplish a variety of goals, wetland practitioners need to have the expertise necessary to do the absolute best job possible to restore those wetlands and the benefits they are expected to provide. A wetland restored to create habitat should be inhabited by the wildlife it was restored for. A wetland restored to attenuate water during floods should hold that water during a flood.  A wetland restored to store carbon should do so—and so on.

So what goes wrong?  That topic was explored during a recent webinar on wetland restoration planning and there were some interesting take away messages.

cw11614-1cookFirst and foremost: A “Cookbook” Approach to Wetland Restoration Won’t Work

There are several reasons this is true, but put simply, there are too many variables. There are many decisions that must be specifically tailored to the unique attributes of any given site prior to, during and after restoration.  Using the ‘cookbook’ analogy here are some of the challenges

  • Ingredients are always different. There are many kinds of wetlands, their position in the landscape varies, water sources (groundwater, surface water, precipitation) vary, surrounding land uses are different, soils are different etc.  In addition, materials imported or added to the site such as wetland plants must be appropriate to the location of the wetlands.
  • Reason for ‘cooking’ differs.The goals of wetland restoration vary.  Some are for mitigation and intended to replace a specific suite of wetlands functions.  Others are voluntary projects often with a focus on specific species such as amphibians or migratory waterfowl.  Some projects are to clean water or provide water storage. And so on.
  • The recipe isn’t always correct. If the project planners fail to understand and correctly evaluate how to respond to all the variables in the first two bullets above, the restoration plan will not yield the results desired.

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  • Inexperienced cooks.  Good plans don’t always get implemented.  Contractors vary in their experience with wetland restoration planning.  Maybe the restoration plan is not specific enough.  Experienced oversight onsite during construction may not be present.  New information may be found during the construction phase (such as the presence of drainage tiles or changes in soil type) and its importance may be ignored or overlooked. 
  • Cooking (restoration) time varies.  Often there is a preference for finishing up a wetland project and declaring success quickly.  Wetland restoration takes time and needs to be evaluated on time scales that are long enough to find out if the desired wetland has been established or is at least progressing toward the desired goal.
  • Poor observation during “cooking”(restoration). Information needs to be collected and acted on to ensure that the restoration process proceeds as planned.  This is the time to evaluate progress and troubleshoot unanticipated issues that may come up.
  • Additional ingredients may be needed.Information collected as the site progresses towards a successful restoration should be used to make any needed corrections.
  • Knowing when it’s done.Wetlands are complex and they will continue to change and evolve over time.  So when is it possible to be confident that ‘success’ has been achieved?  In a previous webinar experts explored the topic of evaluating success in some detail (scroll down to recording of September 9 webinar).

The good news is that the knowledge, tools, and techniques are available to greatly improve wetland restoration success for many different kinds of wetlands.  The challenge is to gather and distribute this information so that wetland professionals are able to respond to increased demand for wetland restoration in the future.  It can’t be a ‘cookbook’ approach but rather one that addresses the realities of  a specific site, and adapts and applies wetland restoration planning practices appropriately from the beginning of the planning process through execution and beyond.

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