Natural wetlands come in different shapes and sizes — from rivers and wet meadows to playas, marshes and lakes. Some are fresh water, while others are saline. When flooded, some hold water for years or decades, and others may only remain wet for a few weeks or months. So what are the main characteristics of a wetland? Wetlands are saturated with or covered by water, either permanently or seasonally, and have vegetation that has adapted to these conditions.
While playas are the most numerous wetlands in the PLJV region, they are covered in the playa section. Here we focus on other wetland types, particularly large wetland complexes.
No matter the type, wetlands are vitally important for wildlife, not to mention people, in this dry landscape. Together, they provide a network of rest areas for migrating birds, places where they can find food and shelter. As water flows from the surrounding uplands, it spreads out and is contained in the wetland, preventing flooding and reducing sediments from entering rivers and streams. Wetlands also improve water quality by removing contaminants.
As you’ll see on the bird habitats page, each wetland type provides vegetation and conditions that attract different suites of birds. Often, these wetlands are clustered together creating wetland complexes with a mix of wetland, riparian, and upland habitats, as shown in the illustration.
For instance, the Spotted Tail Complex in western Nebraska encompasses approximately 1,200 acres of river, wet meadows, and grasslands — as well as some farm land. Jamestown Wildlife Area in Kansas encompasses 5,124 acres around the shallow salt marshes of Marsh Creek, with approximately 2,000 wetland acres. Located in north central Oklahoma, Drummond Flats is a historic overflow basin at the confluence of three creeks which covers 4,653 acres of freshwater marshes with some surrounding uplands.
Due to the importance of wetland complexes, many of them are under state or federal management and are popular places to hunt, bird watch, and enjoy nature. Cheyenne Bottoms, Jamestown, and McPherson Valley Wetlands in Kansas and Drummond Flat and Hackberry Flat in Oklahoma are state wildlife areas, while Muleshoe in Texas, Salt Plains in Oklahoma, and Quivira in Kansas are national wildlife refuges. North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grants are an important source of funding for restoring and managing these wetland complexes.
Quick Facts About Wetlands
- Wetlands include rivers, wet meadows, marshes, playas and lakes.
- Some wetlands are freshwater and others are saline.
- Cheyenne Bottoms, which encompasses approximately 41,000 acres in central Kansas, is the largest wetland marsh in the U.S. interior.
- Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge are designated as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.
- Despite their natural resilience, wetland systems are experiencing reduced water flow due to aquifer depletion and climate change; therefore, wildlife agencies use dikes, pumps, and other water control features to manage habitat to support migrating birds.
Wetlands support a remarkable amount of biodiversity including birds, plants, amphibians, and mammals. Wetland complexes host hundreds of bird species — including endangered species such as the Whooping Crane, Piping Plover and Interior Least Tern — and millions of individual birds every year as they migrate through the Central Flyway. Two wetland complexes, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, are also designated as wetlands of international importance. Saline lakes and Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge are important as sites for Great Plains breeding Snowy Plovers.
Wetlands act as a natural water filter, keeping sediment out of creeks and rivers downstream. Anaerobic bacteria in the wetland soils remove nitrogen and phosphorus that may be in the water. Wetland plants also help out by using those nutrients in order to grow and by stopping other contaminants that can be carried with sediment from nearby crop fields.
Wetlands are part of a larger watershed, a land area that all drains into a single larger body of water. As water travels through the wetland area, water flow slows and spreads out. Some of that water is absorbed and, in some wetlands, recharges groundwater supplies. Flood water is also collected and held, reducing damage in surrounding and downstream areas.
Wetlands connect and facilitate the water flow between surface and groundwater systems. While some recharge groundwater supplies, others are places where groundwater discharges to the surface, often through springs.
Wetlands play an important role in sequestering carbon. The wetland plants use carbon dioxide to grow, and when the plants die, the carbon is then stored in the soils.
Wetlands are perfect places to connect with nature. During migration, they attract millions of birds including ducks, geese, cranes, and shorebirds, providing opportunities for local hunting, birdwatching, and other outdoor activities.