Introduction to Wetlands

What is a Wetland?

Wetlands are lands where saturation with water is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities living in the soil and on its surface (Cowardin, December 1979). Wetlands vary widely because of regional and local differences in soils, topography, climate, hydrology, water chemistry, vegetation, and other factors, including human disturbance. Indeed, wetlands are found from the tundra to the tropics and on every continent except placeAntarctica.

For regulatory purposes under the Clean Water Act, the term wetlands means "those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water 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."

[taken from the EPA Regulations listed at 40 CFR 230.3(t)]

For more information on Wetlands, check out The EPA Website, a part of the EPA office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds web page.

Why Protect Wetlands?

Wetlands perform the following essential functions:

Erosion and Sedimentation Control - Wetlands act as buffers along shorelines, protecting the property from waves or stream activity. Wetland vegetation filters out sediment by decreasing water velocity and settling suspended particles in the wetland, thereby preventing the sediment from reaching the lake.

Flood Protection and Abatement - Wetlands act like giant sponges, soaking up excess water and releasing it slowly.

Water Filtration and Purification - Wetlands are capable of filtering many pollutants from water that is destined for lakes, rivers and your drinking source water. Water leaving a wetland is frequently cleaner than water entering the wetland.

Fish and Wildlife Habitat - Wetlands are one of the most productive and valuable wildlife habitats. Many species of fish and wildlife depend on wetlands for breeding, nesting and feeding. Due to the loss of wetland habitat, many of placeStateNew York's endangered fish, wildlife and plant species depend on remaining wetlands.

Recreation - Wetlands provide a variety of recreational opportunities, including fishing, bird watching, photography, canoeing, hiking, hunting and trapping.

Types of Wetlands

Many terms are used to describe wetlands, but most fall into three general categories:

Marshes are what most people think of as a wetland. Marshes feature shallow standing water, often near a lake or stream. Plants include rushes, reeds, sedges, cattails and grasses. Marshes provide habitat for many fish, amphibians, birds and mammals.

Swamps are forested wetlands dominated by trees and shrubs such as red maple, black ash, elm, poplar, willow and dogwoods. They can be located where groundwater comes close to the surface. Swamps provide habitat for a wide array of wildlife.

Peatlands include bogs and fens. Both are characterized by peat deposits, created by the accumulation of dead plant material. Fens are fed by groundwater, while bogs only get water from rainfall and snow. Many plants and animals are uniquely adapted to live in peatlands.

What can you do for your wetlands?

Residents, developers and local government officials can all play a role in protecting and restoring wetlands:

  • Preserve the existing natural vegetation on your property.
  • Do not apply fertilizers or pesticides within 30 feet or wetland areas. 
  • Avoid planting turf grass or building in this "buffer zone."
  • Support community planning efforts that protect wetlands and other natural areas.
  • Encourage your state legislators to promote policies that curb urban sprawl and protect wetlands and other natural features.
  • Set up a compost pile away from the wetland.
  • Don't dump any pollutants into the street drains or in the community. 
  • Use proper recycling and disposal methods.
  • Avoid the use of de-icing salt; hardware stores carry more nature-friendly alternatives.
  • Avoid the use of fertilizers (which cause algae blooms in surface waters) and poisons.
  • Make use of dry wells for drainage.
  • Talk to your neighbor if your neighbor is inadvertently spoiling the wetland.
  • Report violations (anonymously, if you like) to the Conservation Commission