Wetlands: Not Always What They Seem
Why Wetlands Might Not Look Like You Think

Cattails, standing water, mucky soil. What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘wetland’? Whatever word or picture you imagine, you may be surprised by what qualifies as a wetland.

Wetlands can look very different from the classic image that many of us hold -- cattails, frogs, and still, shallow water. Despite the differences in how they may look, there are three indicators that make a wetland ‘official’: soils, evidence of water and vegetation.

What's a Wetland?
Before digging into what characteristics wetlands share, it is important to understand what a wetland is. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines wetlands as “areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil for all or varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season.”

Wetlands are often referred to as “Earth’s Kidneys” because they perform the same function as our kidneys, filtering and cleaning what is running through the system. Wetlands are critical to processing excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, and other pollutants that flow into our waterways from stormwater runoff. Wetlands also help to reduce the impacts of flooding and provide habitat for land and aquatic life.


Wetland Plant: Bottlebrush Sedge

Wetland Delineation 101
Wetland Delineation 101 requires an understanding of the three criteria listed above: soils, presence of water, and vegetation. Because wetlands, including where they start and end, are not always straightforward, wetland delineators rely on these three indicators to make a call.

Hydrology (Signs of Water)
This category can be straightforward, like seeing standing water, or very subtle and harder to determine. Looking for signs of dried algae, cracks in the soil, the smell of rotten eggs, and water-stained leaves among others can indicate a wetland.


Wetland Plant: Rush

Plants grow where it suits them. Only certain types of vegetation can grow in wet conditions. For instance, Weeping Willow trees like wet soil, but red maples do not. Thousands of species fall within certain tolerances for wetness, which is referred to as an Indicator Status. Statuses range from obligate, almost always found in a wet environment, to upland, almost always found in a dry environment.

To be a wetland soil, it must show signs of being saturated with water for extended periods of time. Things like iron formation, presence of certain colors, clay, and organic matter can indicate wetland soil.

By combining all of these indicators, you may or may not identify a wetland. What is absent (signs of water, for example) is just as important as what is present, which makes wetland delineation an exciting investigation.

This simplified overview provides a brief look at what a wetland is and how to determine if part of the landscape is a wetland. Take your skills to the next level and join us for a series of wetland workshops and boot camps with

Wetland Plant: Deer Tongue