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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Do your homework before buying or developing land – some may be subject to periodic flooding. © DNR Photo
Do your homework before buying or developing land – some may be subject to periodic flooding.

© DNR Photo

August 2006

Wetter — or not?

Determining if a property is a wetland isn't always a cut-and-dried affair. Sometimes you have to get your feet wet to find the answer.

Patricia A. Trochlell


How liquid is your land?
Walk your land, then consider a professional inspection
What to do with wetlands
Three who go with the wetlands flow
Wetland resources online

Dappled sunlight filtered through the maple leaves. The new landowners walked their forested parcel in the August heat, grateful for the maples' cool shade. The property, near the city of Sheboygan, seemed isolated and natural; it looked like an ideal place to build a home. But when the couple returned the following April, they were shocked to find the excavation for their basement filled to the top with water! The beautiful maple trees were silver maples – a tree species common to floodplains. Every spring the lot was under water. The couple had bought a wetland.

Even though maps and many other aids can help people identify wetlands before subdivisions are plotted, lots are purchased, or existing homes are expanded, many people discover too late that portions of their property or the entire parcel are wetlands. Advance notice would help, because homeowners never win when they fight nature. Wet parcels need more engineering and may need to be drained continually to stay dry. Building on wetlands is costly, requires special permits, and often, zoning variances. On the other hand, some people intentionally buy wetlands because they want to preserve the natural values and enjoy the diverse wildlife wetlands attract.

Wetlands used to be considered wastelands, good only to drain for agriculture or to fill in for development. Over time, we've learned that wetlands are important for many reasons – valuable as habitat for dragonflies and great blue herons, ducks and geese, muskrats and mink. Wetlands are nurseries where northern pike, frogs and salamanders spawn. Forty-three percent of all endangered and threatened species rely on wetlands for part of their life cycles. Wetlands soak up storm and flood water, protecting homes and businesses from flooding and slowly releasing water once storms subside. Plants in shoreland wetlands hold the soil and protect lakefront shorelines from waves and erosion; the vegetation also filters the water, providing time for harmful sediments and fertilizers to settle out or be taken up to keep downstream waters more pristine. Wetlands can be areas where groundwater is recharged or discharged, helping maintain summer stream flow.

As we've lost almost half of our state's original 10 million acres of wetlands, we've discovered we can't live without them. Wetlands are places to hunt, fish, harvest wild rice and cranberries, watch sandhill cranes and wood ducks, hear chorus frogs singing and enjoy the solitude of nature. The wetlands that remain are all the more precious for their scarcity.

As more wetlands were developed, laws were adopted to protect them. Wetlands may be regulated at the local, state and federal level. Laws generally require an individual to avoid harming wetlands, but if impacts are unavoidable, permits in some cases grant development rights.

When you buy property or decide to build a home or driveway, it's important to know whether wetlands are present. There are many sources of information to help you locate and pinpoint wetlands on your property or on parcels you are considering purchasing.

How liquid is your land?

What defines a wetland? It is an area where water is at, near or above the land surface long enough to be capable of supporting aquatic or hydrophytic (water-loving) vegetation. It must also have soils indicative of wet conditions. In layman's terms, this means the land has water, wet soils and plants adapted to water. Examples of wetland types include cedar swamps, sedge meadows, shallow marshes, bogs and fens. As we'll see, other types of wetlands are less obvious and harder to identify.

Begin your wetland investigation by consulting maps and soil data. The Wisconsin Wetland Inventory has mapped wetlands across the entire state. You can find these maps at DNR service centers and county zoning offices, or you can order a copy through the DNR website (see box at end of story). The website also offers access to digital maps for your area, and the site's "Wetland Delineation" page describes how wetland boundaries are located and determined.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service maintains maps that identify wetlands in farmed areas at the NRCS service centers and in each county office.

Another good source of information is the County Soil Survey, available at your local zoning office or the NRCS office. You can find soil maps and read the description for each soil type on your property on these survey maps. Poorly drained soils are likely wetland soils.

Don't overlook good sources of information in your immediate neighborhood and community. Ask locals about your property's history. Former landowners, neighbors and county zoning officials may have knowledge about how the land was used, whether it was ever drained, and whether it is subject to flooding.

Maps and people will provide good information, but they are not foolproof. The only way to know for sure where wetlands are located is to look for clues on the property itself.

Walk your land, then consider a professional inspection

Walking your land at different times of the year is a great way to get a sense of whether certain portions are wetlands. The best time to look for wetlands is in early spring.

Some clues will be obvious. If you see springs, standing water that remains ponded throughout the year, or if you have a healthy stand of cattails, you probably have a wetland. Usually the signs aren't so obvious. Land that is farmed or was formerly farmed often has drainage ditches or tile lines signaling the land was too wet to farm in its natural condition. Make sure to cruise your entire parcel in each season.

You can also dig a hole in the ground and watch to see if it fills with water. Keep in mind that local weather conditions, such as droughts or recent heavy rains, can affect this test. The hole will serve another purpose – to check the soil. If you've already looked at the county soil survey, you should have an idea of what types of soil are on your property. If the soil is very dark and relatively lightweight, it may be an organic soil, typical of wetlands. Mineral wetland soils also have distinctive characteristics, such as dull, grayish colors with bright colored mottles. You should see these soil characteristics close to the surface of the land, indicating a high water table.

The plants growing on your land will also give you clues. Most people recognize cattails and bulrushes as wetland plants, but many species of grasses, sedges, shrubs, trees and flowering plants grow almost exclusively in wetlands. Spend a little time reviewing the wetlands pages of the DNR website so you can recognize the range of trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers that typify some common wetlands. While we wouldn't expect to find a bur oak growing in a wetland, a swamp white oak is a species adapted to flooded conditions. A summer field ablaze with asters and goldenrods will not appear to be a wetland, especially considering that water rarely stands on the surface of the land, but it is likely to be a type of wetland known as a wet meadow.

Plants like asters, blue flag iris and marsh milkweed can be clues that your property is a wet meadow. © Patricia A. Trochlell
Plants like asters, blue flag iris and marsh milkweed can be clues that your property is a wet meadow.

© Patricia A. Trochlell

In a wetland, water saturates plant root zones most years in the spring. Common plants of shrubby wetlands include red-osier dogwood, willows or tag alder. Forested wetland types can be quite diverse with balsam fir, white cedar, black spruce and black ash in northern regions of the state, or silver maple, black willow, eastern cottonwood and green ash in southern regions.

Being able to distinguish among 150 or so species of sedges is a skill best left to trained wetland scientists. Professionally trained wetland consultants can determine the boundaries of wetland areas. In the Yellow Pages or on the Internet, look for the headings "environmental consultants" or "ecological services." To get a sense of whether the consultant is skilled and experienced in delineating wetlands, ask some questions: Are the firm's employees certified professional wetland scientists? Have they completed DNR's 40-hour wetland course? How many years of experience does the firm have delineating wetlands? Costs for wetlands evaluations will vary depending on property size, but you can anticipate a thorough analysis might cost about $1,500 and up, depending on the size of the property. The results may need to be verified by DNR, local or federal representatives.

What to do with wetlands

If you suspect wetlands are present on your property, what do you do then? It all depends on what you want to do with your land. If you wish to build a house, road or other development that may affect wetlands, contact your local DNR water management specialist. Prepare ahead of time by compiling any information you have – maps, aerial photographs, site characteristics (soils, water conditions and plants), historical information and a rough plan of what you wish to do.

If your project will affect a wetland, you likely will need permits from the Department of Natural Resources. The average time for DNR review of a complete application is under 50 days and costs $300 for a standard review or $2,000 for expedited service. You may also need to apply for local and federal permits. Contact your local government office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Remember, there are laws in place to protect these valued parcels; it's unlikely you will win approval to develop wetland areas unless there are no practicable alternatives to your project and the effect to the wetland is minor.

Three who go with the wetlands flow

The young couple who bought the Sheboygan lot eventually did get relief, but it came as a very expensive flood control project. Fortunately, this scenario need not occur again. There are plenty of resources available to help people learn where wetlands are located and to take appropriate action to protect those areas. The three people you'll meet below have each in their own way made protecting wetlands a priority.

Diane Schauer lives in Brillion and owns a 4.2-acre marsh surrounded on three sides by houses and the fourth side by a farm. She had always been interested in native plants and habitats and was thrilled to have her own little wetland. In the five years she has lived here, Diane has seen many species of birds, including sandhill cranes which have nested for two years and produced three young in that time. A pair of Canada geese nests in her wetland, and it serves as a refuge to a dozen or more wood ducks every fall. Diane has learned frog songs and can now identify six different species singing on summer nights.

"This is such a glorious little marsh with so much life," she says. The previous landowner had wanted to dredge the wetland, which would have destroyed the natural habitat. Diane regularly communicates with Mike Hanaway, a water regulations and zoning specialist in DNR's Northeast Region, to remind him of the wetland he helped preserve.

Tim Radtke, a Nekoosa alderman, helped convince the city council there was a better use for a seven-acre wetland in the middle of town slated to become a fast-food restaurant with a road passing through it. Radtke felt the wetland could be maintained as a natural place people would want to visit, and helped shift community thinking toward that end.

On Arbor Day, Radtke, teachers and other city residents joined high school students who enthusiastically worked to plant trees, remove trash and invasive plants around the wetland, and install signs. Officially dedicated as the Grassy Waters Preserve, the wetland teeming with birdsong and wildlife now supports a variety of native plants and animals and is seen as an oasis in the city. "It's the place in town you'll want to visit if you want a quiet, natural getaway," Radtke says.

Real estate developer Jim Siepmann deals with wetlands all the time. His grandfather started the family business Siepmann now runs with his sister and brother. His dad employed conservation practices in his subdivisions in the 1960s, decades before the concept was known as "conservation design." Jim looks at the land first – the wetlands, woods, steep slopes and environmental corridors – and then decides where the buildings will go. Large areas of wetlands and other open space are preserved. Siepmann Realty's The Preserve at Hunters Lake, a development located in the Town of Ottawa in Waukesha County, has 65 acres of wetland on the property.

"Most developers would have tried to run lots through the wetlands to Hunters Lake for access," Siepmann says. "We limited the access with a narrow boardwalk and a small pier, but people really love it." Preserving the wetlands and open space areas is part of what makes these areas so dear to the people who live there. The next phase is encouraging residents to take care of the land. Deed restrictions require landowners to take an active role in maintaining the quality of the open space. The residents have ownership in their special areas and help preserve the quality of the wetlands and maintain them for the future. "That's what it's all about, isn't it?" says Siepmann.

Wetland Ecologist Patricia A. Trochlell develops wetland policies, training and restoration for DNR's Watershed Management Bureau.

Wetland resources