Nitrogen runoff from agriculture is a major problem, polluting our waterways and causing algae blooms that damage aquatic ecosystems. Wetlands offer a powerful buffer to nitrogen runoff as they serve as a natural filter to nutrient-polluted water, but we need to restore more wetlands in order to put a significant dent in the amount of nitrogen pollution in America.
In order to identify where wetland restoration efforts can do the most good, researchers at the University of Waterloo and the University of Illinois, Chicago, have developed computer models to evaluate wetland restoration and wetland destruction scenarios. With these models, they hypothetically increased wetland area in America by 10 percent either by positioning the new wetlands strategically near high sources of nitrogen or randomly scattering them ad hoc across the country.
When distributed randomly, the new wetlands removed about 22 percent more nitrogen. However, when the wetlands were positioned near large sources of nitrogen runoff, like agricultural lands, nitrogen removal increased by 90 percent—almost doubling current levels.
So, how feasible is it for the US to expand wetlands by 10 percent?
According to the researchers, it would cost around $3.3 billion annually to expand wetlands by 10 percent. That may seem like a lot, but the reality is that we use the same amount of money as existing annual funding for water quality improvements. If those funds were reallocated towards strategically placed wetlands, it would result in far more nitrogen removal.
All in all, the research proves once more just how powerful it can be to utilize natural solutions for removing pollution rather than relying on new technology. Hopefully, policymakers take note of this new research and consider allocating more funding to wetland restoration.