by The Nature Conservancy
May 22, 2017

More than half of the wetlands that greeted Wisconsin’s early settlers are gone. They were filled in or drained to grow crops and build cities and roads.

With the loss of our wetlands went the many services they provide from improving water quality by removing sediment and nutrients in runoff from rainfall to storing water when streams overflow, which contributes to flood control.

The Nature Conservancy and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are creating an online tool that will help Wisconsin citizens determine where wetland services have been lost and to decide where to invest in wetland protection and restoration.

Based on a model the two organizations and other partners developed in 2012 for the Duck-Pensaukee watershed near Green Bay, Wisconsin, this new, improved version will include wetland information for the entire state.

To replace the services that wetlands and other habitats like forests and prairies once provided for free, we have built sewage treatment plants, levees, dams and other types of infrastructure. But they are expensive and generally only provide one specific service rather than the many services that wetlands can provide.

At some point the cost to add additional infrastructure becomes prohibitive. If we focus on rebuilding our wetlands and other habitats, this “natural infrastructure” will work alongside the built infrastructure to protect our communities, provide habitat for wildlife and save money.

The tool is being designed for two types of users: 1) those who are looking for a site in a watershed that can provide flood abatement, water purification and other beneficial services; and 2) those who already have a site and want to determine what services it is likely to provide and how that matches with the need for wetland services within a watershed.

For example, if communities in counties like Ozaukee and Washington are experiencing increased flooding as they have in recent years, then county planners might decide to look upstream in the Milwaukee River Basin and see where the best places are to protect and restore wetlands that will store water and help with flood control.

Water resources managers in Milwaukee who want to augment their capacity to provide clean water for fish and river-based recreation might be interested in protecting and restoring wetlands that help filter pollutants from urban and agricultural runoff as well as store flood waters. This tool could help them decide which of a number of existing wetlands would do the best job of providing these services if they were protected or restored.

The online tool will be available in Summer 2017 for local planners, regulators, elected officials and citizens who are making decisions about wetland mitigation and about where to protect and restore the wetlands that are contributing immeasurably to clean water, wildlife habitat and safe communities.