Natural Sponges across the Landscape
Throughout the agricultural landscape wetlands form an integral link between land-based farming practices and riparian waterways that dominate the Eastern Shore. Wetlands come in many forms and can look very different from each other. Wetlands found on the Eastern Shore can take the form of a typical looking wetland dominated by marsh plants such as cattails and sedges, but can also be wooded swamps, Delmarva Bays, wet meadows, bogs and anything in-between. Wetlands can be tidal and submerged by salt water during high tides or can be freshwater features found on upland areas away from tidal creeks and rivers of the Chesapeake Bay. No matter the type of wetland, they all form essential ecosystem services.
Some of the most important ecosystem services that wetlands perform throughout agricultural lands are absorbing, storing and preventing sediment and excess nutrients from entering local waterways. As excess nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen leave a farm field they can be taken up and utilized by specialized plants found in the wetland. Other valuable functions of wetlands include flood control, shoreline stabilization, groundwater replenishment and providing wildlife habitat.
The Natural Lands Project will be promoting the restoration and creation of wetlands throughout the agricultural landscape to help improve water quality. We will be specifically targeting marginal cropland that does not produce a crop every year due to flooding. These areas on farm fields are characterized by low lying depressions with specific hydric soil types that hold water or areas where the topography creates channels allowing runoff to flow unimpeded to our waterways. This is especially evident during heavy rain events when these shallow depressions are quickly inundated and rain water laden with nutrients and sediments enter the creeks and rivers leading to the Chesapeake Bay.
These wet areas, often only 2-4 acres, are prime for crop production retirement and wetland restoration. In cases such as this in the agricultural setting, wetland construction entails removal of several feet of soil to increase its water holding capacity, creating a berm to hold water during flooding events and adding a water control structure to drain water when needed. After construction, the area is seeded with native plants that thrive in wet environments.
Once wetland restoration is complete it doesn’t take long to see the benefit to native wildlife. Wetlands are important areas for wintering waterfowl. Many species of ducks forage on the submerged aquatic vegetation and geese feed on the grass in the seasonally flooded areas of the wetlands. If they’re located in close proximity to woods, Wood Ducks will nest nearby and bring their brood to the wetland. Wading birds such as Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets will hunt fish and frogs, migrating shorebirds will rest and refuel, and insect eating birds will benefit from the added habitat diversity.
Not only are wetlands ranked as one of the top Best Management Practices for water quality improvement, they are important wildlife habitat, add diversity to the landscape and have high aesthetic value.