Wetlands Wednesday: Travel With Me and Widen Your Horizons

By Cynthia Cassel

My husband and I love to take long (3,500+ mi.) driving trips in big loops around our beautiful country. He likes to do most of the driving, which is great because it means I get to be a spectator. Until I joined EPA, I knew the names of various kinds of wetlands (I fancy myself a “nature girl,” after all), but I didn’t have a complete picture of the wealth and diversity of wetlands that the EPA Region 7 states of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska can claim.

May is National Wetlands Month, marking its 25th anniversary this year. So for the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some information that I found interesting – and I’ll bet you didn’t know either. Our Wetlands and Streams Protection Team is presenting a multi-part series during Wetlands Month. None of the wetlands being presented are exclusive to any one of our Region’s states, but some are more prevalent in one state or another. As my hubby and I took these many trips, I was able to visit all of the wetland types in Region 7 and I thought you’d enjoy taking this journey with me. This week, we start with the exceptionally beautiful and bountiful state of Nebraska.

Freshwater Wetlands of the Sandhills

Nebraska SandhillsThe Sandhills of Nebraska are a 19,000+ square mile area of contiguous sand dunes covering much of north-central Nebraska (see map at right). The area lies above the Ogallala Aquifer which stretches through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The freshwater wetlands of the Sandhills are of great importance in collecting rainwater, snowmelt, and runoff that recharges the aquifer. The Sandhills Freshwater Wetlands also provide vital habitat for countless numbers of migrating and resident waterfowl and shorebirds, offering food, shelter, nesting sites, and cover for endangered Whooping Cranes, among others.

This wwater and birdsetland system ranges from small shallow marshes to large deep lakes, and from coniferous and deciduous forests to short/tallgrass prairie to lush aquatic vegetation. Alkaline (or saline) lakes form in regions where there is little rain. The lakes form in depressions known as basins. Water flowing over and through the ground dissolves minerals (salts) from the rocks and soil. Runoff carrying the salts collects in the lowest part of the basin, forming a lake. Water in the lake evaporates, but the salts stay behind. Over time the salts build up, creating an alkaline lake. The kinds of salts that accumulate vary from lake to lake, but usually they include sodium chloride (table salt), potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, and carbonate salts. Salt Flats and Lakes are unique in that little vegetation grows there, yet these wetlands are a popular stopover for many migratory birds.

I hope you enjoy learning about the diverse wetlands across our four states during May, why they’re important to habitat, and why they’re economically and culturally important to communities and the people who live near them.

Cynthia Cassel has worked as a Senior Environmental Employment (SEE) Program grantee with EPA Region 7’s Wetlands and Streams Protection Team for 5½ years. She received her Bachelor of Science from Park University. Cynthia lives in Overland Park, Kan.

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