Written by Sarah Morton
Farmers are the backbone of our country. They work day in and day out to produce the foods we eat, the clothes we wear, and so much more. Farms also provide critical habitats for wildlife and can host many different types of ecosystems, including wetlands. From the 1950s to the 1970s though, wetlands- half a million acres of them, were pumped dry so the land could be used for agriculture (Sucik and Marks, 2013). Today, wetlands are still drained or filled in for urban developments but farmers that do this lose privileges to USDA grants. Now, there are programs that pay for farmers to revert land back to wetlands and this can increase yields and protect vital resources for years to come.
As more time goes by, farmers are embracing wetlands on their property because of the benefits they provide. Utilizing wetlands can help farmers manage pollution, increase the number of pollinators, and potentially keep their wells from running dry. Each of these benefits can improve the productivity of their crops and protect surrounding communities and wildlife.
Farms are the number one source of nutrient pollution in streams. Nutrient pollution consists of nitrates and phosphorus from fertilizers and/or manure being mixed with water and running downhill after precipitation events. Contaminated runoff from both free range livestock farms and concentrated animal feeding operations can cause algal blooms, seen in Figure 1, which leads to a lack of oxygen in waterways (Kay, et al., 2021). This lack of oxygen, also called hypoxia, has been responsible for many fish and shellfish kills here in the Carolinas. Fish kills occurred for months after Hurricane Matthew as waste from farms was swept into creeks and streams (Dybas, 2018).
Wetlands, whether they are natural or constructed, can deter these pollutants from entering waterways even at times when the water flows high due to large rainfall events (Kay, et al., 2021). Nitrates are removed from runoff and surface water by wetland vegetation (University Study, 2020). The use of this nutrient by wetland plants lessens the amount of nitrates reaching other waterbodies. Wetland restoration or construction enhances general water quality and protects downstream communities from pollution.
Increasing Pollinator Populations
Farmers that grow crops rely on bees, flies, butterflies, and more to pollinate flowers which will enable fruit/vegetable growth. As wild pollinator populations fall due to habitat loss, preserving or restoring wetlands may be a solution to increase crop productivity (Begosh, Smith, et al., 2020). A study published in the scientific journal of Ecosystem Services of Wetlands shows that the number and diversity of hymenopterans- wasps, bees, sawflies, and ants, are influenced by wetland presence (Begosh, Smith, et al., 2020). Larger populations of hymenopterans increase the likelihood of pollination, which will positively affect crop yields.
Potential Well Water Recharge
Over 43 million people in the United States source their water from wells on their property (USGS). Of these millions, most live in rural areas, including the farmers we rely on. Water is a crucial resource for any farmer whether they only have livestock or if they grow crops.
When it comes to water consumption, around 80% of all the water in the United States is used for agricultural purposes (USDA, 2019). This water consumption can lower the water table potentially causing nearby wells to run dry. While this is more common in western parts of the United States, it’s important to manage water resources on the east coast as well.
Most wetlands are located at points where water is discharged from the water table. Wetlands are commonly found at lower elevations where the water table sits. Some wetlands, however, can actually recharge groundwater as seen in Figure 2 (Carter, 1997). This means that water within the wetland seeps into the water table below and moves away from the wetland. These types of wetlands can recharge nearby wells and protect water resources for farmers and surrounding communities.
Wetlands and agriculture go hand in hand. Less water pollution, healthier populations of pollinators, and protecting water resources are just a few benefits wetlands provide.
Carter, V. (1997). Wetland Hydrology, Water Quality, and Associated Functions. USGS. National Water Summary on Wetland Resources. Accessed 5/31/2021. Retrieved from: https://water.usgs.gov/nwsum/WSP2425/hydrology.html
Begosh, A., Smith, L.M., Park, C.N. et al. (2020, Oct). Effects of Wetland Presence and Upland Land Use on Wild Hymenopteran and Dipteran Pollinators in the Rainwater Basin of Nebraska, USA. Wetlands 40, 1017–1031 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13157-019-01244-w
Dybas, C. (2018, May 2). Two decades of hurricanes change coastal ecosystems: increase algae blooms, fish kills, dead zones. National Science Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=245304
Kay, D., Clarke, A., Crowther, J., Davies, C., Francis, C. A., Stapleton, C. M., Watkins, J., Wyer, M. D. (2021, Feb 16). Effectiveness of Constructed Farm Wetlands In Attenuating Faecal Indicator Fluxes To Watercourses From Yard Runoff On Livestock Farms. Water and Environment Journal. DOI: 10.1111/wej.12700
NC Division of Water Resources. (n.d.). Blue-green Algae Fact Sheet. Accessed 5/31/2021. Retrieved from: https://files.nc.gov/ncdeq/Water%20Quality/Environmental%20Sciences/FishKill/algae/Bluegreen%20Algae.pdf
Sucik, M. T. & Marks, E. (2013). The Status and Recent Trends of Wetlands in the United States. USDA. Accessed 5/28/2021. Retrieved from: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1262239.pdf
University Study Shows Restoring Wetlands near Farms would Reduce Water Pollution. (2020, December 23). Legal Monitor Worldwide.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2019, Sep 23). Irrigation & Water Use. Accessed 5/28/2021. Retrieved from: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/irrigation-water-use/
About the Author
Sarah Morton is a student at Southern New Hampshire University studying environmental science with a concentration in natural resources and conservation. After finishing her degree, her goal is to work closely with local farmers in North Carolina to protect and enhance soils for generations to come.