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Mapping Michigan wetland loss

Wetland loss by county in Michigan from 1800 to 2005.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has released its first status reporton the wetlands in our state. 

You can think of wetlands as nature’s kidneys — they filter water.

Wetlands also help control floodwater and all kinds of creatures live in them.

A history of loss

The report estimates that before European settlement, we had 10.7 million acres of wetlands in Michigan. But since the early 1800s, we’ve lost more than 4.2 million acres. Those wetlands were drained primarily for farming and development.

The report notes:

It is clear that our wetland resources continue to be depleted at a rate that, while slowing, is still faster than efforts to restore or create wetlands. Furthermore, areas with historic loss of wetlands are still struggling with the consequences of that loss (e.g., water quality issues, flooding and flashy streams, and loss of wildlife). In addition, Michigan’s wetlands continue to face increasing threats, including historic threats such as agriculture and development, as well as new threats like invasive species and climate change.

Credit DEQ
An inhabitant of a Michigan wetland.

Chad Fizzell is the lead author of the DEQ report.

He says 6.4 million acres of wetlands remain in the state. That’s about 40% fewer acres of wetlands than we had in Michigan before European settlement.

Fizzell says this report focuses on wetland quantity in the state.

He says his office has also collaborated with other organizations around the state to evaluate the health of our wetlands.

“So we’re evaluating wetlands for things like floodwater storage and habitat and all sorts of things,” he says.

How healthy are the remaining wetlands in Michigan?

Fizzell says these studies reveal that Michigan wetlands are stressed.

“The wetlands we have left in the state are under increasing pressure because of the initial loss that obviously we had,” he says. “So all the wetlands that are left are essentially left to do the remaining ecological services that those lost wetlands were providing.”

And he says the trend of loss continues.

“We’re still losing wetlands in one way, shape or form, even up until today,” Fizzell says.

As the report notes:

While state wetland regulations have helped to slow the destruction of wetlands in Michigan from a quantitative perspective, watershed related wetland studies completed around the State have consistently shown a decrease in wetland function and overall quality for the wetlands that remain.

The DEQ report reflects data through 2005. Fizzell says his team is working on the next wetland status report, and he expects that report will show continued wetland loss.

“Certainly with the increases in commodity prices, corn and soybeans in the last ten years, and being in the program and seeing the status of wetlands — from the landscape level through the permitting process — we’re certainly seeing what I believe would be an increase in the loss in the next ten years, in terms of the rate of loss,” he says. “But that would be more or less speculation on my part.”

How to slow down the rate of loss

Michigan and New Jersey are the only states in the country that have taken over administration of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

"So we actually administer our own wetlands protection program here in the state under the purview of the EPA," says Fizzell.

As the report explains:

These protections prevent filling, dredging, draining, and maintaining a use in any regulated wetland without a permit from the MDEQ. Wetlands protection is shared between the state (MDEQ) and the federal government (USACE) in Section 10 waters and along the Great Lakes shore.

But local communities can also get involved, he says, by establishing wetland ordinances. He says this can cover gaps in the state statutes.

“And given the increasing risks that our wetlands are experiencing in the state, certainly those protection efforts are even more important now than they used to be,” he says.

You can find out more from this Wetlands Map Viewer.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.