Our Precious Wetlands

by Lynn Jones (1) (Article used with the permission of the author Lynn Jones)

Photos by Grant Dobson


Even in winter wetlands are teeming with life, above and below the ice (Photo: Grant Dobson)

To the untrained eye, wetlands such as swamps, ponds, marshes, and bogs, look pretty ordinary. It’s easy to take them for granted or see them as wasted land that could be drained and put to better use. But wetlands are very special places that are teeming with life and they provide many benefits to human communities.

Wetlands teem with life because they are places where water, “the elixir of life,” and land are in close contact. Water permeates wetlands or even submerges them in the case of ponds and marshes. Shallow wetland waters are ideal habitats for many water loving plants. Detritus from these plants accumulates in the water and soil creating a nutrient-rich feeding ground for a wide variety of birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and mammals.

Hummingbird visiting a common wetland plant, Bottle Gentian (Photo: Grant Dobson)

Many beautiful wildflowers are specially adapted to grow in wetlands. Examples include Bottle Gentian, Cardinal Flower, Blue Flag Iris, and Swamp Milkweed. With our attention turned toward this abundance of diverse life, we start to see the beauty in wetlands and our appreciation is kindled.

But wetlands offer much more to appreciate than abundant life and pretty wildflowers.

Wetlands are masters of flood control and drought prevention. They have an enormous capacity to soak up and hold water during snowmelt and rainstorms thus preventing erosion and flooding. They absorb huge quantities of water like giant sponges and then release it slowly later during dry conditions. Wetlands also allow water to seep and spread underground, recharging groundwater supplies.

Wetlands absorb water like a giant sponge, preventing floods and droughts (Photo: Grant Dobson)

Wetlands clean and purify water. When fast-flowing storm runoff enters a wetland, it is slowed down by the vegetation and it drops its sediment load. Plants and microorganisms in the wetland soil act as living filters and remove nitrogen and phosphorus, preventing them from causing harmful algal blooms downstream. Wetlands also detoxify pathogenic bacteria and remove drug residues. Wetlands provide homes to some of the Ottawa Valley’s endangered species including Blanding’s Turtles, Least Bitterns and Western Chorus Frogs. And they are important stopping places for many migratory bird species. Wetlands are also great places for humans to enjoy time in nature whether fishing, hunting, foraging, birdwatching, paddling, or boardwalk strolling.

A Blanding’s Turtle, one of the Ottawa Valley’s endangered species that depend on wetlands for survival (Photo: Grant Dobson)

A very important benefit of wetlands is their role in regulating the climate. Recent research in the Canadian prairies showed that large intact wetlands can cool the surrounding atmosphere by a few degrees and reduce the duration of heatwaves. They do this by absorbing heat, evaporating water, and seeding clouds. Wetlands, especially peat bogs, also contribute to climate regulation by acting as carbon sinks. When wetland plants die and fall to the bottom they don’t break down as quickly as they would in a forest. The carbon in the plant residues accumulates and is stored in the wetland soil.

Imagine for a moment gliding silently through a marsh in a birchbark canoe, brushing past plants and flowers while butterflies flutter by, dragonflies dart around and turtles bask in the sun on half submerged dead trees. For thousands of years this is how Indigenous people inhabited wetlands, carefully harvesting food, medicine and building materials in ways that ensured the wetlands would continue to thrive. Wild rice and cranberries were two important foods they harvested. Cattails provided food, cordage, mat-making material, and insulation (think cattail fluff!)

European colonizers who came to North America lacked an appreciation for wetlands. Their arrival coincided with the beginning of what some have called the “drain age” as vast acreages of wetlands were drained for farms, towns, and extractive industries. Worldwide, it’s estimated that more than half of Earth’s wetlands have been lost this way. In Southern Quebec and Ontario, the percentage of wetlands that have been lost to development is 70-90% by some estimates.

The good news is that the enormous value of wetlands is becoming more widely appreciated. Governments, NGOs, and citizens groups are now working to protect and restore wetlands.

Cattails are one of the wetland plants that capture excess phosphorus and nitrogen, preventing harmful algal blooms downstream (Photo: Grant Dobson)

The Province of Quebec unanimously passed new legislation in 2017 to protect and restore wetlands in the province. It was the first Canadian province to do so and received well-deserved high praise from conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Ontario by contrast, lacks sufficient protection for wetlands according to a report by the province’s Auditor General. And a recent controversial bill to fast-track housing development in the province downloaded wetland evaluation to municipalities that may not be equipped to do such evaluations. Some of the slack in Ontario is picked up by organizations like Ducks Unlimited Canada and Nature Conservancy of Canada that protect many wetlands in Ontario and across the country. Ducks Unlimited also recently funded a successful watershed restoration project on the Carp River in the west end of Ottawa.

We are fortunate that the Ottawa Valley still has many beautiful extant wetlands. Some can be visited by the public such as Cranberry Marsh in Deep River, also known as Kennedy Creek Marsh (map,) Mer Bleue Bog and Stony Swamp in Ottawa, and Plaisance National Park on the Ottawa River west of Gatineau, Quebec, “one of the most amazing protected areas” in Canada. A new project is underway to further protect a 29 km stretch of wetlands between Plaisance Park and McLaurin Bay in Gatineau. When complete, the Grandes Baies de l’Outaouais Wildlife Refuge will be the largest in Quebec, protecting 22 square kilometers.

An extensive list of “provincially significant wetlands” in Renfrew County is available here. Conroy Marsh in western Renfrew County and the Snake River Marsh near Cobden are two that can be enjoyed by canoe or kayak. 

A detailed and thorough scientific description of wetlands with many beautiful coloured photos is this 1997 publication: Canadian Wetlands Classification System.

Lynn Jones is a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit, charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley. ORI’s mission is to foster sustainable communities and ecological integrity in the Ottawa River watershed. Grant Dobson is an ecological restoration expert and photographer who shares his photos on the View from Connaught Pond Facebook page.

1 - Jones, Lynn. 2023. Our Precious Wetlands. Photos by Grant Dobson. Ottawa River Institute, Ottawa, ON.

https://mailchi.mp/e22cea541f7a/watershed-ways-issue-1-november-8774533. Accessed Sun., Feb.4, 2024.

This article was published in The South Shoreliner, February 2024 edition.