Restored wetlands rarely equal condition of original wetlands

Jan 24, 2012
Restored wetlands like this pond converted from agricultural use in Aragon, Spain, may look natural, but a new study shows that it can take hundreds of years for restored wetlands to accumulate the plant assemblages and carbon resources of a natural, undamaged wetland. Credit: David Moreno-Mateos/UC Berkeley

Wetland restoration is a billion-dollar-a-year industry in the United States that aims to create ecosystems similar to those that disappeared over the past century. But a new analysis of restoration projects shows that restored wetlands seldom reach the quality of a natural wetland.

"Once you degrade a wetland, it doesn't recover its normal assemblage of plants or its rich stores of organic , which both affect of water and , for many years," said David Moreno-Mateos, a University of California, Berkeley, postdoctoral fellow. "Even after 100 years, the restored wetland is still different from what was there before, and it may never recover."

Moreno-Mateos's analysis calls into question a common mitigation strategy exploited by : create a new wetland to replace a wetland that will be destroyed and the land put to other uses. At a time of accelerated caused by increased entering the , carbon storage in wetlands is increasingly important, he said.

"Wetlands accumulate a lot of carbon, so when you dry up a wetland for agricultural use or to build houses, you are just pouring this carbon into the atmosphere," he said. "If we keep degrading or destroying wetlands, for example through the use of mitigation banks, it is going to take centuries to recover the carbon we are losing."

The study showed that wetlands tend to recover most slowly if they are in cold regions, if they are small – less than 100 contiguous hectares, or 250 acres, in area – or if they are disconnected from the ebb and flood of tides or river flows.

"These context dependencies aren't necessarily surprising, but this paper quantifies them in ways that could guide decisions about restoration, or about whether to damage wetlands in the first place," said coauthor Mary Power, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology.

Moreno-Mateos, Power and their colleagues will publish their analysis in the Jan. 24 issue of PLoS Biology.

Wetlands provide many societal benefits, Moreno-Mateos noted, such as biodiversity conservation, fish production, water purification, erosion control and .

He found, however, that restored wetlands contained about 23 percent less carbon than untouched wetlands, while the variety of native plants was 26 percent lower, on average, after 50 to 100 years of restoration. While restored wetlands may look superficially similar – and the animal and insect populations may be similar, too – the plants take much longer to return to normal and establish the carbon resources in the soil that make for a healthy ecosystem.

Moreno-Mateos noted that numerous studies have shown that specific wetlands recover slowly, but his meta-analysis "might be a proof that this is happening in most wetlands."

"To prevent this, preserve the wetland, don't degrade the wetland," he said.

Moreno-Mateos, who obtained his Ph.D. while studying wetland restoration in Spain, conducted a meta-analysis of 124 wetland studies monitoring work at 621 wetlands around the world and comparing them with natural wetlands. Nearly 80 percent were in the United States and some were restored more than 100 years ago, reflecting of a long-standing American interest in restoration and a common belief that it's possible to essentially recreate destroyed wetlands. Half of all wetlands in North America, Europe, China and Australia were lost during the 20th century, he said. S

Though Moreno-Mateos found that, on average, restored wetlands are 25 percent less productive than natural wetlands, there was much variation. For example, wetlands in boreal and cold temperate forests tend to recover more slowly than do warm wetlands. One review of wetland restoration projects in New York state, for example, found that "after 55 years, barely 50 percent of the organic matter had accumulated on average in all these " compared to what was there before, he said.

"Current thinking holds that many ecosystems just reach an alternative state that is different, and you never will recover the original," he said.

In future studies, he will explore whether the slower carbon accumulation is due to a slow recovery of the native plant community or invasion by non-native plants.

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User comments : 7

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MR166
1 / 5 (7) Jan 24, 2012
Do you ever wonder why your income is not enough to support your family? It is wasteful projects like this that increase the cost of living and have no real benefits to society. The governments of the world can no longer borrow enough to support these types of useless undertakings.
Telekinetic
4 / 5 (4) Jan 24, 2012
These man-made wetlands are to real, unsullied wetlands as the volcano in Las Vegas is to Vesuvius.
plaasjaapie
1 / 5 (2) Jan 24, 2012
"But a new analysis of restoration projects shows that restored wetlands seldom reach the quality of a natural wetland."

Well, duh!
LuckyExplorer
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2012
Who wonders?
Preservation will always be the better solution!
Therefore protection of such ecosystems should have the first priority.

I am sure we will never (but at least not in the near future) have the knowledge to really renatureate a complex eco-system adequately, independent from the available money. - But that should not be the question.

In most cases this (second best) solution is better than doing nothing.
mosahlah
1 / 5 (4) Jan 25, 2012
You can try all you like to mitigate the effects of industrialization. You can recycle, put up solar panels, build hatcheries, plant trees, etc. Just don't expect any environmentalist to give out credit. You can't turn the green revolution which only purpose is to destroy life as we know it.
mosahlah
1 / 5 (3) Jan 25, 2012
Let me pre-respond..Walk the walk. I'm sure you can find plenty of peasants living in mud caves in Nepal that are ready to trade places so that they can enjoy the security of modern society, and you can get back to the carbon-neutral, organic, environmentally sound lifestyle you dreamers want to force on the rest of us.
MarkyMark
not rated yet Jan 28, 2012
. Just don't expect any environmentalist to give out credit. You can't turn the green revolution which only purpose is to destroy life as we know it.

Actually the oposite is true not that i expect a Probable Tool to actually seriously debate this.