Iowa (and much of the Corn Belt) was once characterized by extensive wetlands dotting the vast prairie. As the land was settled, wetlands were drained for agriculture, as well as development of railroads and early community settlements. While wetlands can be found across the state, the majority of Iowa’s wetlands were located in the north central part of the state (Des Moines Lobe).
Created by the last glacier to cover the state 10,000-15,000 years ago, this area was left flattened with thousands of indents when the ice receded. Deep indents became lakes, while the more shallow recesses became prairie pothole wetlands. In some places within the Des Moines Lobe, it is estimated that as many as 200 potholes could be found within a one square mile section of prairie!
Where have all the wetlands gone?
It is estimated that over 90% of the original wetlands in Iowa have been lost. In the Des Moines Lobe specifically, that number climbs — approximately 99% of wetlands had been lost on the Des Moines Lobe as of the 1970s (Wetland Restoration in Iowa: Challenges and Opportunities/Iowa Policy Project).
After bottoming out in the 1970s, the tide has slowly and steadily changed. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing through today, more and more citizens across the state are seeing the true value that wetlands provide out on the landscape and have acted towards increasing wetlands acres. Numerous restoration programs have strived to support this momentum, working collaboratively to bring back these vibrant ecosystems on our landscape.
Through programs such as CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) and CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), wetland areas are being maintained and restored as we speak. These state and federal programs work with farmers and landowners who would like to voluntarily transition land use from agricultural production to wetlands production.
Iowa is currently ranked 4th in the country in CRP wetland restoration, behind only Minnesota and the Dakotas (December 2015 USDA-Farm Service Agency Monthly Summary). Wetlands restoration is making forward progress — good news! There’s also still quite a ways to go.
Depending upon their placement on the landscape, restored wetlands can offer benefits for water quality (more information coming in next week’s wetlands feature!), wildlife habitat, flood storage, and more. Every additional wetland out there helps! As Rebecca Christoffel, Wildlife Specialist with the Snake Conservation Society, emphasizes in the video Incredible Wetlands,
“Iowa has already somewhere between ninety and ninety-nine percent of its wetlands. In my view whether it’s a recreated wetland, if it’s a restored wetland, or if it’s a constructed wetland, that’s still a positive move.”
Catch up on our previous features celebrating American Wetlands Month: