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Freshwater Wetlands Act & Landowners

Our Mission

It is the mission of the Freshwater Wetlands program to protect, maintain, enhance, and restore freshwater wetlands ecosystems so they provide a broad array of wetlands functions and benefits to the people and the environment of New York.

Picture of a Wetland

Wetlands are areas where land and water meet. They are transitional areas between aquatic and upland plant and animal communities, and often have some of the qualities of both. Wetlands also occur where the groundwater occurs near or at the surface, saturating the soil and the root zone of the plants that grow there. Society and scientists have created numerous definitions of wetlands, depending on how they -- both the definitions and the wetlands -- will be used. The state's freshwater wetland act contains a lengthy definition in Environmental Conservation Law §24-0107.1); a simple definition would be:

Freshwater wetlands are those areas of land and water that support a preponderance of characteristic wetlands plants that out-compete upland plants because of the presence of wetlands hydrology (such as prolonged flooding) or hydric (wet) soils. Freshwater wetlands commonly include marshes, swamps, bogs and fens. Some wetlands occur where the groundwater emerges at the surface of the ground, usually on a slope; these commonly are known as hillside seeps or slope wetlands. Probably the most well-recognized wetland is where surface water, such as a pond or lake slopes up to land, where wetlands develop; these are known as fringe wetlands. Riparian wetlands occur in the floodplain adjacent to streams and rivers. Another wetland type is where a depression in the land reaches down into the groundwater; these are the famous prairie potholes of the American Midwest, and the vegetated ponds on Long Island. Finally, wetlands can occur where surface water is trapped in shallow depressions by soil that will not allow the water to seep downwards. These are called depressional or flat wetlands and are common on clay soils in the Lake Plains of western New York.

When scientists look at wetlands, they usually look at a few key characteristics. The most relevant one is water. Water, or the wetland's hydrology, is why the wetland exists. But it also is very elusive. Hydrology changes throughout the year -- ponds get low, streams dry up, wells go dry. It also varies between years. So scientists look for signs that water was there at some recent time and for extended periods of time. Indicators of hydrology include leaves that have turned black from being in the water for a long time, or silt marks on tree trunks.

Vegetation is a more dependable and useful indicator that a wetland is present. Certain plants, known as "hydrophytes," have adapted to survive with their roots growing in water for at least part of the growing season. Some of these plants, known as "obligates," require water to survive or to out-compete other plants. Typical obligates include cattails, pond lilies, and skunk cabbage. Other plants, known as "facultative" plants, are able to grow in either wet or dry conditions. Common facultative species include red maple and green ash. They can only tell you that a wetland MIGHT be present. Finally, other types of plants, known as upland species, cannot grow and survive in situations where their roots are wet for long periods of time in the growing season. Examples are black locust, black oak, and multiflora rose.

Soils are the other commonly used indicator that wetlands may be present. Wet soils, known as "hydric" soils, develop when they are flooded or saturated for long periods of time, especially if part of the time occurs during the growing season. If the ground is wet for all or most of the year, organic, peat-types of soils (sometimes called muck) develop. When the soils dry out for part of the year, the peat material oxidizes, or breaks down. Then, other signs help indicate wetness: rust stains may develop along the roots of plants, or the color of the soil changes.

When evaluated together, hydrology, soils and vegetation can indicate whether an area is a wetland. Some are obvious: marshes along the coast. Others are very subtle: seasonally flooded red maple swamps.

Wetland Functions and Values

Wetlands perform numerous functions, such as removing excess nutrients from the water that flows through them. These functions in turn provide benefits to the environment and the citizens of the state. For example, the benefit derived from nutrient removal is improved or maintained water quality. This in turn is valued by society for a number of reasons such as clean drinking water, safe recreation, and secure fish and wildlife habitat.

Following are some of the wetlands functions and benefits that are important in New York State:

Flood Protection and Abatement - During storms and periods of heavy rain or spring snow melt, wetlands serve as natural reservoirs or channels for conveying excess water, slowing the movement of water through the watershed. Filling in wetlands often results in increased flooding, both downstream, by speeding water along, or upstream, by blocking water flow.

Erosion and Sedimentation Control - Wetlands vegetation helps to filter sediment by decreasing water velocity. Suspended particles settle in the wetland and do not enter navigational channels, lakes, and reservoirs. In much the same manner, wetlands also help prevent erosion of shorelines and valuable agricultural land by serving as buffers between wave or stream activity and adjacent lands.

Water Quality Maintenance - Microorganisms in wetlands break down and use nutrients and can significantly reduce levels of natural and human-induced pollution in water as it filters through the wetland. Chemical processes in the soil also immobilize chemicals and heavy metals. Water leaving a wetland is frequently cleaner than water entering the wetland. Wetlands also protect fresh groundwater supplies in coastal areas by preventing saltwater intrusion.

Recharging Groundwater Supplies - Wetlands sometimes are helpful in recharging groundwater. This function is especially important where groundwater is the sole-source of drinking water or constitutes the major source of usable water.

Maintaining Surface Flows - Wetlands frequently serve as groundwater discharge sites, thereby maintaining the quality and quantity of surface water supplies.

Fish and Wildlife Habitats - Many species of fish and wildlife depend on wetlands for critical parts of their life cycle. By providing breeding, nesting, and feeding grounds and cover, wetlands are recognized as one of the most valuable habitats for wildlife. Young fish find food and shelter in the protective vegetation. Many species of endangered, threatened, or special concern fish and wildlife depend on wetlands. Tidal wetlands are vital to the continued health of vertebrate and invertebrate species of the waters of New York's marine district. Over two-thirds of the fish, shellfish and crustaceans harvested in New York (including both commercial and recreational harvest) are dependent on tidal wetlands for some portion of their life cycles. In addition, wetlands are habitat for thousands of species of the plants of New York. One half of New York's protected native plants, many of which are endangered or threatened, are wetlands species.

Nutrient Production and Cycling - Wetlands are one of the most ecologically productive systems on earth, converting sunlight and nutrients into food sources for animals. Some tidal wetlands exceed even tropical rainforests in energy conversion. Wetlands also serve as filters for sediment and organic and chemical nutrients. These components are recycled in wetlands, where the nutrients are broken down and reentered into the food web.

Recreation - Hiking, bird watching, hunting, fishing, trapping, boating, photography, and camping are some of the recreational uses provided by wetlands. Over 12 million New Yorkers annually participate in these outdoor activities. In a 1991 report to the Legislature on the economic return from hunting, fishing and other uses of wildlife, it was estimated that these activities had a total annual worth of more than $5 million.

Open Space - Wetlands are often the only undeveloped areas along crowded riverfronts and coastal regions or in urbanized areas. In some areas, real estate near open space, such as wetlands, command significantly higher prices.

Educational and Scientific Research - Wetlands provide readily accessible outdoor biophysical laboratories, living classrooms, and vast training and education resources.

Biological Diversity - Society is becoming increasingly concerned about local, regional and global biological diversity. Wetlands are important components of the landscape and contribute significantly to the state's overall biological diversity. Wetlands are habitat for many rare and indigenous species of plants and animals and many in themselves represent unique natural communities.