We have all heard the term wetlands or wetlands restoration, but what does it mean? According to Wikipedia, in the United States wetlands are defined as "those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs and similar areas."There are three main components for a wetland. First, it must have hydric soils or soils that have developed under wet conditions. Secondly, it must have water present during at least part of the year, and thirdly, it must contain water-loving plants which have adapted to changes in water levels.
Wetlands can be found in lowland areas, farm fields, forests and along rivers, streams and lakes. They can vary in size from a few hundred square feet in the middle of a forest or several hundreds to thousands of acres along the banks of a river or lake. Benefits of wetlands are many. Probably the most important benefit is they keep our water clean. A wetland has the ability to remove nutrients from the water column and convert them into plant material within the wetland. It has the ability to retain the sediment that would otherwise move downstream and buildup in rivers, streams and lakes. It has the ability to protect the shoreline by minimizing bank erosion caused by wave actions and currents. Because of the water it retains, it provides a base flow of water for streams especially during dry periods or drought. It can also store excess water during flooding events and it buffers water temperature fluctuations. These abilities help protect homes, businesses and roads from flooding.
A good, stable wetland also provides a wonderful wildlife habitat for fish, shellfish, waterfowl, shorebirds, forest birds, amphibians and other invertebrates. Having diverse wildlife can aid in mosquito control from natural predators rather than through use of dangerous chemicals. It can make a great outdoor classroom for student and adult education.
Historically, wetlands were viewed as obstacles that needed to be overcome or eliminated. Over a century ago, an area located in Northwestern Indiana was known as the “Everglades of the North.” It was a 600,000-acre area called the Grand Kankakee Marsh. It followed the Kankakee River from southwest South Bend around current Crumstown near the ethanol plant over into Illinois, meeting with the Des Plaines River to form the Illinois River. Including the Illinois section, the marsh covered close to a million acres. French traders and Native Americans used the nearly 200-mile Kankakee River to get from Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. The marsh supported the local economy built around fur trading and hunting of waterfowl. Sportsmen from all over the world came to hunt and fish. Several presidents including Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison were among those who frequented this area. The marsh also supplied Chicago with barrels of frog legs and railroad cars full of wild game.
As the human population increased, people wanted to use some of the marsh for expansion and farming. Starting around 1858, the first ditch was dug to drain part of the marsh for farming. The digging of ditches continued in Indiana until 1922 to claim the fertile land for farming and expansion. This straightening of the Kankakee River changed the length from approximately 200 miles to about 120 miles. Illinois did not allow the same drainage practice. In some ways it is understandable that we would claim some of this land to be able to feed others. But in this process, we went from 600,000 acres of wetlands to 5,000 acres. That drastically changed the effectiveness of cleansing our water and sustaining wildlife habitat. Because of the “straight shot” of the Kankakee River in Indiana today, the Illinois section of the Kankakee is having water quality issues and sediment issues.
In LaGrange County, we are part of the St. Joseph River watershed which includes the Pigeon, Fawn, Elkhart and Little Elkhart rivers and their tributaries. LaGrange County’s current wetland acreage is 21,246. Pre-settlement wetlands totaled 62,276 acres. This is a loss of around 66 percent of total acreage. Functional losses in the areas of floodwater, streamflow maintenance, nutrient transformation, sediment retention, shoreline stabilization, fish habitat, waterfowl habitat, shorebird habitat, forest bird habitat and amphibian habitat range from 46 percent to 80 percent. Is this a big concern? YES!
Obviously, we cannot change what has already happened. But we can look carefully at what we do in the future with an understanding of what LaGrange County was prior to the influx of civilization. As we look at building projects, we need to avoid building on previous or current wetlands. It might be a little less convenient, but why continue to destroy areas when we could possibly relocate to a more suitable site. We need to continue to protect the rivers and lakes we have from pollution. If we can restore some of the lost wetlands, we can improve the quality of our rivers and streams and land.
It is going to take a concerted effort of citizens, farmers, businesses and townspeople to understand the past and plan for future growth in an ecological way. If you have questions or concerns, contact your local soil and water conservation district.