Determining How Effective NRCS Conservation Practices are at Protecting Wetlands

Dan Environment, Industry News Release, USDA-NRCS

(NRCS) — If you were to travel back in time to colonial America, you would see a much different landscape. Wetlands, those areas where water covers or is close to the soil surface all or most of the year, were much more prevalent on the landscape than they are today. Back then, wetlands were viewed as a barrier to agriculture and development. Since then, more than half were drained, including about a half-million acres annually for production agriculture from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s.


We now know that wetlands provide many benefits to us. To name a few, let’s start with floodwater storage and nutrient and sediment capture. Wetlands also protect downstream waters, as well as provide fish and wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities such as fishing and hunting. Today, having realized that in draining so much land that we lost or compromised many of these benefits, we look to conservation planners and applied hyperspectral analysis to determine what needs to be done next, and when.

Planners consider many factors before they decide how to protect water resources and which agricultural lands should be restored back to wetlands. Our current understanding of some of those factors is the subject of a Special Section of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (JSWC) that focuses on Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) Wetlands studies. CEAP is a multiagency research collaboration. The objective of CEAP’s five components, including CEAP-Wetlands, is to develop better methods for estimating the environmental benefits and effects of conservation practices on agricultural landscapes at various scales, enhancing scientific understanding.

The six CEAP-Wetlands research papers in this JSWC Special Section present recent study findings from regional wetlands assessments. Specific developments and findings from these studies include:

  • Remote sensing, hydro¬logic modeling, and geospatial analysis tools were developed that help quantify multiple ecosystem services accruing from wetland restorations and support land management decisions.
  • Methods were identified to simulate depressional wetlands within agricultural fields in the CEAP National Cropland Assessment, improving our ability to predict outcomes of conservation practices.
  • Information was gained to incorporate wetland plant growth and functional groups into models that improve simulation of within-wetland processes.
  • Modeling of nutrient flows was enhanced for water management scenarios in wetlands of California’s Central Valley.
  • Use of remotely sensed data was shown to have promise for assessing wetland function at the landscape scale.
  • A remote classification system for wetlands was developed to better facilitate ecosystem service quantifications.

The JSWC Special Section also includes discussion of advances and results of efforts to improve computer models commonly used in USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service analyses. Many CEAP research efforts rely on computer modeling to better understand the interaction of practice implementation with environmental factors such as soil type and climatic conditions. Model results help conservation planners address resource concerns and assess the outcomes of Farm Bill programs at local or regional levels. Improved models will inform wetland restoration and conservation decisions at various scales and allow for better prediction of outcomes of conservation practices intended to enhance the biodiversity and many functions of wetlands.

Source: By Joseph Prenger, CEAP-Wetlands Component Leader, Natural Resources Conservation Service