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Wetlands

Basic Information about Wetland Restoration and Protection

What is Restoration and Protection?

Wetland restoration is the manipulation of a former or degraded wetland's physical, chemical, or biological characteristics to return its natural functions. Restoration practices include:

  • Re-establishment, the rebuilding a former wetland; and
  • Rehabilitation, repairing the functions of a degraded wetland (US EPA, 2007a).

Wetlands protection is defined as removing a threat or preventing the decline of wetland conditions (US EPA, 2007a). In addition to restoring compromised wetlands, voluntary protection of naturally occurring wetlands is a valuable part of voluntary wetland restoration and protection.

Goals and Benefits

How Do Wetlands Protect Me?

Wetlands can play a role in reducing the frequency and intensity of floods by acting as natural buffers, soaking up and storing a significant amount of floodwater. A wetland can typically store about three-acre feet - three acres covered in water three feet deep - or one million gallons of water. Coastal wetlands serve as storm surge protectors when hurricanes or tropical storms come ashore. In the Gulf coast area, barrier islands, shoals, marshes, forested wetlands and other features of the coastal landscape can provide a significant and potentially sustainable buffer from wind wave action and storm surge generated by tropical storms and hurricanes.

How Do Wetlands Protect Wildlife Habitat and Support Economic Well-Being?

Wetland restoration and protection is important to maintain critical wildlife habitat, help meet state and tribal watershed goals and contribute to economic well-being. To achieve these goals, many states have invested in programs that help implement, support or coordinate local restoration efforts.

States and tribes enjoy numerous benefits of restoration and protection due to the many functions that natural wetland systems perform. The unique natural characteristics of wetlands make them an integral part of our natural infrastructure.

  • Wetlands provide critical habitat, breeding grounds and sources of food for shellfish, fish, birds, amphibians and other organisms.
  • Wetlands play a crucial role in many state and tribal fishing economies.
  • Wetlands are also preserved to provide feeding and resting grounds for migratory birds and to create habitat corridors for wildlife populations.
  • These services generate state and tribal commercial, recreational and aesthetic benefits as well.
  • Wetlands also control erosion, limit flooding, moderate groundwater levels and base flow, assimilate nutrients, protect drinking water sources and buffer coastal areas from storm surges.
  • States may pursue wetland restoration to improve water quality and comply with Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) pollutant allocations in impaired waters and watersheds.

States and tribes can pursue any or all of the following objectives as they develop voluntary restoration and protection efforts:

  • Clearly and consistently define restoration and protection goals throughout state or tribal territory;
  • Protect wetlands from degradation or destruction;
  • Restore wetland acres, condition and function; and
  • Track progress over time, document results and modify practices as appropriate.

Regulatory vs. Voluntary Restoration

Restoration and protection efforts can be either regulatory or voluntary. Regulatory restoration and protection (a component of compensatory mitigation) results from federal, state, tribal, or local laws and regulations that prohibit, condition, or compensate for permitted impacts to existing wetlands. Voluntary restoration and protection refers to activities not required by statutes or regulations. 

Both regulatory and voluntary wetland restoration play a role in states and tribes broader implementation of Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act programs.

Whether as a stand-alone effort or as a complement to a state/tribal regulatory program, voluntary restoration and protection efforts help stem the loss and create a gain in natural wetlands and their associated functions. Voluntary restoration and protection is the subject of this core element, with particular focus on restoring or protecting natural wetlands to maintain or attain a high level of overall wetland function/condition. Many states and tribes rely on voluntary restoration and protection activities as a basis for their wetlands programs.

Voluntary Restoration

Voluntary wetland restoration and protection often include on-the-ground collaborations between nonprofits, local governments, and industry to advance shared interests. Voluntary wetland restoration and protection often emphasize wetland functionality to best support broader ecosystems and ecosystem services. Many state and tribe programs rely on voluntary restoration and protection activities as a basis for their wetlands programs because of this broad focus.

Restoring Naturally Occurring Wetlands

Wetland restoration involves taking efforts to restore a former or degraded wetland’s physical, chemical, or biological characteristics to return its natural functions.

Voluntary wetlands restoration is a growing area of collaboration across the federal family. Different agencies have a variety of authorities and responsibilities. Federal agencies with key roles include EPA, USACE, NOAA, USFWS, USDA, US DOD, DOI, USFS and USDOT. Generally, these various agencies administer different Acts or other legislation that stipulate the protection for various aspects of wetlands (e.g., specific wildlife). For instance, the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and North American Wetlands Conservation Act all concern voluntary wetlands restoration, but focus on distinct aspects of the ecosystem. The EPA supports voluntary wetland restoration through opportunities for funding, partnerships with various federal and state agencies, and partnerships with independent groups.

Constructed Treatment Wetlands

Because natural wetlands are so effective at removing pollutants from water that flows through them, engineers and scientists construct systems that replicate some of the functions of natural wetlands.

These constructed treatment wetlands use natural processes involving wetland vegetation, soils, and their associated microbial life to improve water quality. They are often less expensive to build than traditional stormwater treatment options, have low operating and maintenance expenses, and can handle fluctuating water levels.

Core Elements Framework and Examples of How to Implement Them

For information on voluntary wetland restoration and protection, please refer to the EPA Core Elements Framework.

For examples of how states and tribes are implementing the Core Elements Framework to enhance and protect their resources, see Examples of State and Tribal Wetland Programs.