Indiana’s Everglades: Why water is flowing again in the Midwest’s dried-out swamps

Wetlands in Wisconsin
Geese swim with their young through the wetlands in Wisconsin. The habitat is rich in food sources and nesting sites. (PUBLIC DOMAIN)

By Fiona Skeggs
Medill Reports

Wetlands go hand-in-hand with the Florida Everglades. More than 2,000 square miles of mangrove forests and marshland make this UNESCO World Heritage Site a refuge for wildlife. From white ibis and endangered Miami blue butterflies to alligators and manatees, the Everglades are teeming with life. The National Park Service has documented more than 500 species of birds, reptiles, mammals and butterflies in the region.

But more than 1,500 miles north of the Florida Everglades, a patchwork of lesser-known wetlands is once again growing in size. Wisconsin has lost almost half of its historic 10 million acres of wetlands to farmland, factories and urban development, with most of the remaining areas surviving in the northern third of the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Katie Beilfuss, outreach programs director at the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, says the northern wetlands remain intact as the land is less suitable for crop farming.

“Conversion to agriculture was the number one reason for the destruction of wetlands,” she said. “Because we all needed to eat, and we needed to support our growing country.”

Beilfuss says the Midwest is seeing an increased number of storms each year due to climate change, and the resulting flood damage to properties, bridges and roads is impacting communities. She says while many people may not care about climate change from an environmental perspective, they do care about protecting their neighborhoods.

And wetlands play a vital role in the absorption of water and slowing it down. When they are removed, the flow of water speeds up, leading to erosion and increased flood risk. The Wisconsin Wetlands Association works with communities and landowners, giving them the information and assistance needed to restore and maintain wetland areas as natural floodplains. Beilfuss says it’s important for people to understand how wetlands work to sustain these ecosystems. Wetlands also sequester carbon dioxide linked to the fossil fuel emissions that are accelerating storm activity in the first place.

Wetlands vary in type. Some are wet year-round; some are seasonal. Just because the ground is dry, doesn’t mean it’s not a wetland. Beilfuss says somebody once wanted to build a shed upon land mapped as wetland, reasoning that the ground was dry enough to drive across.

“There are plenty of us in Wisconsin who drive trucks on top of lakes in the winter because they are frozen,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not a lake.”

Across the U.S., wetlands are being celebrated at this time of year in honor of the 1971 Ramsar Convention. Named after the Iranian city in which the convention was held, 170 countries signed a treaty agreeing to identify and maintain wetlands of international importance, known as Ramsar sites. Of these 2,400 sites worldwide, which cover more than 2.5 million square kilometers in total, 41 are located in the U.S.

One of Wisconsin’s five Ramsar sites covers the Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs, near New Odanah. These wetland systems are one of a few areas in the Lake Superior region where ancient wild rice grows.

An aquatic plant that thrives in shallow marshland areas, wild rice holds huge ecological importance in wetland systems. It also has high cultural value to the Ojibwe nations of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota who farm and harvest the rice by hand.

The rice, or manoomin, offers high nutritional value and will support a healthy ecosystem, says Peter David, wildlife biologist at the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. He says rice beds are a vital food source and nesting site to many birds, mammals and insects, including the endangered black tern.

Tribal communities, such as the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, are involved in rice stewardship on reservation land and collaborate with projects on ceded territories.

“We’ve lost a large portion of the historic rice beds that existed,” said David, who works on rice restoration projects outside of reservation land. He says while some places have been altered to a point where restoration is impossible, the abundance of rice in northern Wisconsin has increased by about 25%.

Much of the Great Lakes region was historically wetland area. The expansion of settlements in the Midwest saw enormous areas of land drained for development and agriculture. What was once a swamp on the shores of Lake Michigan is now the sprawling metropolis of Chicago. According to the Illinois Natural History Survey, the state has lost more than 90% of its wetlands.

In the 1800s, the Kankakee Grand Marsh wetland system was one of the largest in the U.S., stretching from South Bend, Indiana, down to the Kankakee watershed on the Illinois-Indiana border. Beaver Lake, a large, shallow, freshwater lake within the Grand Marsh watershed was drained in the mid-1800s to make way for homesteads, farmland and later community development.

The Nature Conservancy’s Efroymson Restoration project at Kankakee Sands now sits wholly within the historic boundaries of Beaver Lake. The conservancy first purchased land in the watershed in 1996, and now owns around 8,000 acres. Trevor Edmonson, Kankakee Sands site manager, says the Nature Conservancy aims to restore as much of the surrounding wetland as it can, but the lake can never be fully returned to its former levels due to the surrounding communities in the area. “People have built homes there for generations,” he said.

The Nature Conservancy continues to fill in ditches and drains on the property in an effort to restore the water flow and seasonal flooding to the area, but Edmonson says it cannot fill in drains across the watershed that are federally owned. Where wetlands cannot be restored, prairie grasslands are being maintained with the use of traditional management techniques such as reintroducing native plants and grazers to the landscape. Bison herds keep the vegetation in check and draw visitors to the region.

Kankakee Sands is not currently a designated wetland of international importance, but Edmonson says the conversation about its future status is ongoing.

In Wisconsin, amid plans to designate more areas as Ramsar sites, Beilfuss says there needs to be more conversations about wetlands as concerns over methane emissions are hindering restoration efforts.

Bill Mitsch, director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University, has studied wetlands for 50 years and says in most cases wetlands are “net good for the climate,” as they actively remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Mitsch says the balance between carbon storage and methane emissions is important, and that mismanagement can result in “bad wetlands” – ones that stop storing carbon but continue emitting methane.

Rather than thinking of the impacts climate change has on wetlands, Mitsch says we should be focusing on how wetlands impact climate. He emphasized the importance restoration can have on the environment and says wetlands “play a spectacular role” in carbon sequestration and are the “perfect machine to control climate change.”

Fiona is a science and environmental journalism graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @fiona_skeggs.