Wetlands: Earth’s Kidneys

By Marguerite Huber

Stream restoration research

Stream restoration research

Our organs are vital to our health, with each one playing a significant part. Kidneys, for instance, filter our blood to remove waste and fluid. Wetlands are often referred to as “Earth’s kidneys” because they provide the same functions, absorbing wastes such as nitrogen and phosphorous. When excess amounts of these substances—nutrient loading—flow into waterways it can mean harmful algal blooms, hypoxia, and summer fish kills.

Recognizing the importance of wetlands, many communities are taking steps to protect, restore, and even create wetlands.

For example, many stream restoration projects include constructing wetlands to absorb stormwater runoff and absorb excess nutrients and other pollutants that flow in from a host of sources across the watershed (known collectively as nonpoint source pollutants).

These constructed wetlands can provide key elements to urban stormwater management because they help reduce the impacts of runoff after a rainstorm or big snowmelt event. Such runoff typically transports high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous and suspended solids from road surfaces into waterways.

One such type of wetland that may provide these kinds of benefits is the oxbow lake, so named because of their curved shape. These form naturally when a wide bend in a stream gets cut off from the main channel, but EPA researchers are taking advantage of a couple of oxbow wetlands created during stream restoration activities at Minebank Run, an urban stream in Baltimore County, MD.

The researchers are studying the oxbow wetlands to quantify how effective such artificially created wetlands are at absorbing nitrogen and phosphorous in an urban setting. If these types of wetlands are effective, then deliberately constructing oxbow wetlands could be an important nutrient management strategy in such landscapes.

From May 2008 through June 2009, the researchers analyzed water, nitrate (a form of nitrogen pollution), and phosphate flow during four storms to better understand the impacts of hydrology on the potential for the two oxbow wetlands and the adjacent restored streambed to absorb or release nutrients.

The results suggest that oxbow wetlands in urban watersheds have the potential to be “sinks” that absorb and store nitrogen. They also reinforced information pointing to the dynamic hydrologic connection linking water and nutrient flow between streams and nearby oxbow wetlands, findings that if confirmed through further investigation can be used to improve restoration efforts that improve water quality across entire watersheds.

When it comes to phosphorus, the researchers found that oxbows don’t function as “sinks,” but “sources,” that contribute a net increase of the nutrient. They hypothesize that this is because the nutrient is released from wetland sediments during storms or other similar events. Future studies are needed to investigate the magnitude of phosphorous release, and how important that contribution is across the watershed.

Just like how our kidneys are an essential aspect of the human body, wetlands are an important aspect of nature. Retaining additional nutrients and treating non-point source pollutants help give natural and constructed wetlands the affectionate nickname of “Earth’s Kidneys.”

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

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