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Wetlands support flood risk reduction

Published May 19, 2014

While wetlands play an important role in providing habitat for a myriad of species and serve as a filter for aquifers, they also play an important role in reducing the impacts of floods.

Wetlands act as natural buffers. They slow and absorb significant amounts of floodwaters, and it all helps reduces the frequency and intensity of floods. 

Since flooding, both inland and coastal, is the most common natural hazard in the United States, wetlands play an integral role in managing this risk, particularly through planning approaches that consider the entire watershed.

“When people think of wetlands, they often think of the habitat they provide to wildlife and recreation opportunities they provide to humans,” said Jeff Olson, regulatory branch section chief. “Many wetlands act like sponges, absorbing rainfall and controlling its release into streams and rivers.”

A strong argument can also be made that the most significant economic benefit wetlands provide is flood control and management. A study by the Wetlands Initiative concluded that restoring wetlands along the 100-year flood plain of the Upper Mississippi River could increase storage capacity to 39 million acre-feet of flood water. This is a similar volume to the Mississippi Flood of 1993 that caused $16 billion in damages.

In coastal regions, wetlands also significantly mitigate the impacts of storm surges and waves. The nation’s vital gulf coastal landscape and associated infrastructure experienced crippling damage as a result of wind, tidal surge, and flood related impacts during the 2005 hurricane season.

Whatever the reasons for protecting and restoring our wetlands, whether it is to provide habitat for wildlife, improve water quality or provide recreational opportunities, our wetlands are an important part of our ecology, concluded Olson.