Wetlands play a vital role in ecosystems, specifically when it comes to water purification. A new study from the University of Waterloo and the University of Illinois took a deeper look at just how influential targeted wetland restoration could be for improving water quality.
When analyzing wetlands across the US, the researchers found that these areas remove 8 percent of excess nitrogen in the environment created largely by agricultural runoff. Although 8 percent is a national average, in some regions this figure is much higher. In the Midwest, wetlands remove 439 kilotons of nitrogen that would otherwise make its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Without these Midwestern wetlands, 51 percent more nitrogen would end up in the ocean.
In addition to predicting the dire consequences of wetland removal, the team also took a more optimistic outlook on the incredible potential of restoring wetlands across the country. They found that if 10 percent, or 5.1 million hectares, of farmland, was restored to wetlands, nitrogen removal would increase by 22 percent. If these areas were located next to sources of nitrogen-rich runoff, like farms and livestock, this figure jumps to 94 percent.
So what would it take to boost wetland coverage by 10 percent? It turns out it wouldn’t be too costly. The price of restoring 10 percent of wetland coverage would be about $3.3 billion, roughly what the US already spends annually on water quality restoration projects.
The researchers hope this new data will help lawmakers make more informed decisions about conservation and restoration funding. It certainly demonstrates how critical our wetlands are and the need to prioritize their protection. If wetlands restoration coincides with the adoption of more sustainable, regenerative farming practices, we could transform our entire agricultural system to be more environmentally-friendly while leaning on wetlands to help clean up the mess we have already made.