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What Is a Wetland?

There has been a tremendous amount of controversy about how to define wetlands. Much of this controversy is related to the fact that wetlands are regulated by several laws, and to apply these laws, the wetland boundary needs to be determined (a process termed wetland delineation). Delineation of wetlands is difficult because they occupy a transitional zone on the landscape, and frequently become dry. The State of Nebraska has adopted the federal definition that wetlands are “Those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions. Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas” (USACE 1987). Wetland delineation in Nebraska is currently based on the 1987 Corps of Engineers Wetlands Delineation Manual (USACE 1987).This manual uses three diagnostic environmental characteristics to delineate wetlands.

The three characteristics are:

1) vegetation — defined by a prevalence of hydric (water-loving) plants adapted to growing in inundated or saturated conditions. http://www.nwi.fws.gov/bha/lists.html

2) hydric soils — the presence of soils that developed under inundated or saturated conditions that limit oxygen (anaerobic conditions).

3) hydrology — defined by inundation or saturation by water at some time during the growing season (the time when plants are actively growing).

Functions and Values: Why Are Wetlands Important?

Why should we care that Nebraska has lost some of its wetland resources? And why are some agencies now trying to protect wetlands when not long ago they were paying to drain them?

Two main factors have contributed to this change in approach and attitude.

The first is that our knowledge of how wetlands function has increased dramatically in the past few decades. Wetlands are now known to serve numerous functions, many of which have value to society as a whole.

Secondly, as wetland losses increased, the system that was dependent on these functions began to break down. Put another way, the loss of a small percentage of a region’s wetlands probably had little effect, but as losses increased, a threshold was crossed and negative impacts began to occur. Examples include declining wildlife diversity and abundance, increased flooding that has occurred in some watersheds, and deteriorating water quality that has become a problem in many regions.

This is why there is now a recognized need for wetlands conservation in Nebraska. There is a great deal of confusion generated by the term “functions and values”. Functions are defined as the things that a wetland does and value is the worth of that function to either an individual or society. Based on these definitions, functions can be measured and documented, while values may vary from person to person. For example, we can measure the function that a wetland serves by holding water and reducing downstream flooding. This may have no value to a person living outside of the watershed, but a great deal of value to a downstream landowner or society as a whole which pays indirectly for the costs of flooding. Ascribing and quantifying values is extremely complex (Leitch and Hovde 1996, Hubbard 1989) and is beyond the scope of this guide. It is important to note that not all wetlands serve all the functions listed below. Nor will a given wetland necessarily serve these functions equally within a year or over a series of years.

Some of the recognized functions of wetlands include:

  1. Improving Water Quality — When most people consider wetlands, the last thing they think about is clean water. Wetlands can produce foul smelling gas (rotten egg odor) and contain numerous floating plants, algae, bacteria, bugs, and other animals that hardly make you want to drink the water. However, due to these plants and animals, and the chemical processes that produce the smelly gas, wetlands are a great natural cleanser of many common water pollutants. Wetlands act as a filter, slowing water down and allowing sediment and many pollutants to settle out. As the water slowly moves through the wetland, a series of chemical transformations take place that tie-up or alter a variety of pollutants. The net result is that, as a general rule, the water leaving a wetland is of higher quality than the water entering the wetland. In fact, studies have shown that up to 80% of the nitrate pollution entering wetlands is converted to harmless nitrogen gas by the time the water exits the wetland. Wetlands are increasingly being used for water pollution control and waste water treatment due to their water cleansing functions.

  2. Providing Habitat for Wildlife, Fish, and Unusual Plants — Wetlands are among the most productive biological systems known. They produce more plant and animal life per acre than cropland, prairies, or forests. This high level of productivity makes wetlands important habitat for an abundance of different kinds of wildlife and fish. Wetlands provide migration, breeding, nesting, and feeding habitat for millions of waterfowl, shorebirds, songbirds, and other wildlife. Wetlands are home to thousands of different plant and animal species including many that are threatened or endangered. Nine of Nebraska’s 12 federal endangered and threatened species use wetland areas, as do 19 of Nebraska’s 27 state listed endangered and threatened species.

    . Many wetlands provide important feeding and rearing habitat for fish. All the state’s amphibians, as well as many reptiles and invertebrates, use wetlands. Wetlands also provide important winter cover for pheasants, deer and other resident wildlife. Nebraska is unique in that it possesses three major wetland complexes that are of international importance to wildlife. The Rainwater Basin area in south-central Nebraska provides critical spring staging and migration habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds and endangered species. Immediately north of this area is the Central Platte River which provides critical migration habitat for the endangered whooping crane, spring staging habitat for 80% of all North American Sandhill cranes, breeding habitat for threatened and endangered species, and migration habitat for waterfowl and other waterbirds. Finally, the Sandhills wetland complex in north-central Nebraska is recognized as providing important breeding and migration habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, and endangered species.

  3. Reducing Flooding and Soil Erosion — Many wetlands act as a sponge by storing water temporarily and allowing it to percolate into the ground, evaporate, or be slowly released back into a stream or river. This temporary storage reduces flooding after a storm. Wetlands also slow the overland flow of water, reducing downstream soil erosion. 

  4. Supplying Water — Wetlands store rainwater and runoff. Many wetlands slowly release water into the ground to recharge groundwater. Some wetlands also slowly release water to streams and rivers, helping to maintain stream-flows. These water supply functions can benefit municipal and agricultural water users, and provide water for livestock.

  5. Producing Food and Fiber — Some of our most productive cropland is located on completely drained wetland soils. Many of the same factors that make drained wetlands productive for agriculture make existing wetland areas productive for food and fiber. These functions are already recognized by many in agriculture who tap the capability of existing wetlands to produce hay and forage for livestock. Less conventional uses are also possible such as raising fish, crayfish and frogs or growing alternative crops like wild rice, new strains of crops adapted to wetlands, and the use of wetland plants for biomass or ethanol production (USEPA 1991).

  6. Providing Recreation and Education — Wetlands provide numerous recreational opportunities including hunting, trapping, wildlife watching, photography, and enjoyment of the serenity that a wetland can offer. Anglers also benefit from wetlands because many species of fish use these areas for spawning, hiding, or because the foods used by the fish are produced in wetlands. Wetlands provide an excellent setting for environmental education because of the many unusual life forms present and because they are unique features of the landscape. Wetlands also serve a heritage function because they represent a landscape as it once appeared in the past.

Wetland Dynamics 

Wetlands are highly dynamic and productive systems. Wetlands produce more plant and animal life per unit area than woodlands, prairies, or cropland. Because wetlands occupy a continuum between wet and dry conditions, they undergo a variety of unique changes both seasonally and from year-to-year. Wetlands become dry and then flood, are burned by prairie fires, and are subjected to other disturbances such as grazing. These are natural processes that don’t harm the wetland. In fact, it is the interaction of all of these dynamic processes that make wetlands so productive. If some of these processes are altered, for example, by maintaining a constant water-level, the wetland will actually begin to deteriorate. Other factors that can cause the wetland to deteriorate are human-induced factors such as permanent drainage, water diversion, sedimentation from erosion, and filling with soil, concrete, or trash. 

Wetland Classification

Numerous classification systems have been developed for wetlands. The one most commonly used today is the Cowardin system (Cowardin et al. 1979). This is a hierarchical system that classifies wetlands according to system, plant community and substrate, water regime, water chemistry, and numerous special modifiers such as the presence of dikes, drainage, and excavations. In many cases portions of the same wetland can be classified differently. 

Systems — The three wetland systems that occur in Nebraska are palustrine, lacustrine, and riverine. Palustrine systems usually are marshes and are dominated by vegetation. Lacustrine systems are lakes, usually deeper than 6.6 feet. Riverine systems are rivers and streams that flow in a defined channel. 

Water Regime — Water regime describes the duration and timing of inundation or saturation in a wetland. In Nebraska, most palustrine wetlands are of the temporarily, seasonally, or semipermanently-flooded water regime. Temporarily-flooded wetlands are flooded for brief periods, often only a few weeks, during the growing season. Seasonally-flooded wetlands have water present for extended periods during the growing season, but they tend to dry up by the end of the season in most years. Semipermanently-flooded wetlands have water in them in most years and only occasionally dry up.

Wetland Inventories and Maps

Many different techniques have been used to inventory the past and current number and acreage of wetlands, and to track the conversion or loss of wetlands in Nebraska. Because of this, the numbers derived statewide or within a complex are not always in agreement, and care needs to be taken when interpreting these numbers. Nevertheless, these numbers are useful in examining the major, long-term trends in wetland numbers and acreage in Nebraska. 

The most complete wetland inventory for Nebraska was conducted by the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The inventory produced maps that depict wetlands by the Cowardin classification (Cowardin et al. 1979). They are an excellent tool for inventorying and locating wetlands but they are not delineation maps. The maps were produced from aerial photographs taken in the early 1980s, so some inaccuracies are present in the mapping. NWI maps for Nebraska can be ordered by calling (402) 472-7523. Digital maps are available for much of the state.

Statewide Wetland Resources

At the time of statehood in 1867, Nebraska contained an estimated 2,910,000 acres of wetlands covering about 6% of the state (Dahl 1990). Through much of the state’s history, wetlands were viewed as an impediment to transportation, agriculture, and development. The federal government actively encouraged the conversion of wetland areas to other uses through land give-aways, direct financial assistance, technical assistance, crop subsidies, and tax incentives.

Wetlands have been impacted directly by filling, ditching, tiling, digging concentration pits, channelization, and declining water tables, and indirectly by changes in the surrounding uplands that caused increased sedimentation or the diversion of surface runoff away from wetlands. Wetlands and water areas were also created in some regions due to the construction of farm and livestock ponds, and locally rising water tables due to irrigation canal and reservoir seepage. However, the net result of all of these activities statewide was a reduction in wetlands by an estimated 35%, to 1,905,000 acres covering only 3.9% of the state (Dahl 1990).

The destruction of wetlands was much higher in some regions of the state, but the statewide figure is buffered by the large wetland resource still remaining in the Sandhills. Temporarily-flooded and seasonally-flooded wetlands were lost at the highest rate throughout the state, and much of this acreage was not compensated for by the construction of lakes and ponds. Most states surrounding Nebraska have lost a greater percentage of their wetlands (Dahl 1990).

Many organizations and agencies have put a great deal of effort into conserving and managing some outstanding examples of Nebraska’s wetland resources. These entities have acquired or in other ways protected approximately 50,000 acres of wetlands in Nebraska; however, this represents less than 3% of the remaining wetlands in the state. Examples of some public areas to visit are provided in the section entitled Nebraska’s Regional Wetland Complexes. A statewide list of public Wildlife Management Areas, many of which contain wetlands, is available from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Wetland Conservation Efforts

It is beyond the scope of this publication to deal in-depth with all of the wetland conservation efforts underway in Nebraska. Listed below are statewide initiatives, while regional initiatives are covered in the respective sections under Nebraska’s Regional Wetland Complexes.  Wetland Restoration, Enhancement, and Management Assistance — Programs are available to assist landowners with the restoration, enhancement, and management of their wetland areas. These programs provide up to 100% cost-share and are flexible enough to meet the needs of most landowners.

Wetland Restoration, Enhancement, and Management Assistance

Programs are available to assist landowners with the restoration, enhancement, and management of their wetland areas. These programs provide up to 100% cost-share and are flexible enough to meet the needs of most landowners. For assistance or additional information, contact your nearest Nebraska Game and Parks Commission office or the headquarters office at P.O. Box 30370, Lincoln, NE 68503, (402) 471-5436. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office can also provide assistance. Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, WILD Nebraska Program; Natural Resources Conservation Service Programs; Wetlands Reserve Program; Fish and Wildlife Service, Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program; Farm Service Agency Programs.

Several agencies have programs to acquire wetlands, on a willing seller-willing buyer basis, by fee title (e.g., state Wildlife Management Areas) or by easement (e.g., the Wetland Reserve Program). Contact your nearest Nebraska Game and Parks Commission office , or the headquarters office, P.O. Box 30370, Lincoln, NE 68503, (402) 471-5436 or 5536. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office may also be able to help.  Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, WILD Nebraska Program; Natural Resources Conservation Service, Wetlands Reserve Program; Fish and Wildlife Service.

Water Quality ProgramsWetlands are incorporated into several water quality improvement programs. Contact the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, P.O. Box 98922, Lincoln, NE 68509, (402) 471-2875.

Protection — Several laws are in place to protect existing wetland areas and the functions that they provide. The federal Clean Water Act may require that a Section 404 permit be obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prior to draining, filling, placing objects, or digging in a wetland or other water area. Contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 8901 South 154th St., Suite 1, Omaha, NE 68138, (402) 896-0723. The Department of Environmental Quality considers wetlands to be waters of the state and protects them from degradation (Nebraska Surface Water Quality Standards, Title 117). Contact the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, P.O. Box 98922, Lincoln, NE 68509, (402) 471-2875. For information on 404 permits, for information on Title 117.

Landowners who receive federal farm program benefits need to follow the wetland rules contained in the Swampbuster provision of the federal Farm Bill in order to maintain their eligibility for benefits. This program is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service

Outreach, Education, and Planning
— A variety of outreach, education, and planning efforts address wetlands. Project WILD and Project WET provide teachers and school children with wildlife and wetland curricula materials. For Project WILD contact the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, P.O. Box 30370, Lincoln, NE 68503, (402) 471-5581. For Project Wet contact the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cooperative Extension, 114 Ag. Hall, Lincoln, NE 68583-0700, (404) 472-2805). Additional outreach materials are available from the Wetland Program Manager, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, P.O. Box 30370, Lincoln, NE 68503, (402) 471-5436.

Wetland Conservation Approaches

Because of the importance of wetlands, there is a need for continued conservation. This is especially important for some areas due to past wetland losses and continued threats to the wetlands. The following list provides some general statewide recommendations for wetland conservation. These approaches should be tailored to meet the unique needs of each regional wetland complex.
  • Protection — Since a vast majority of Nebraska’s wetlands are in private ownership, the conservation of these areas requires understanding and meeting the unique needs of landowners. A variety of tools are already available to allow this to happen, but new ones also need to be developed. There is a need to develop alternative ways to protect our remaining wetlands. These should include the use of easements to protect areas while allowing them to remain in private ownership, changes in the tax code that favor wetland protection, and seeking ways to help landowners generate income from their wetland areas.

In addition, efforts to acquire important wetland areas need to be continued. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission gives wetlands top priority in their habitat acquisition program. Finally, laws that protect existing wetlands, such as the Clean Water Act and Farm Bill, need to be maintained. However, it is important that these laws continue to recognize the complex dynamics of wetlands and the fact that not all wetlands serve the same functions. It is also important to continue to work with landowners in finding ways to make wetland protection compatible with their interests and needs.

  • Restoration — Simply protecting our remaining wetland areas will not be adequate to ensure the conservation of our wetland systems and the functions they provide. This is especially true for some wetland complexes where over 90% of the wetlands have been eliminated or severely degraded. Efforts to restore wetlands, both on public and private land, need to be increased. 

  • Management — Given that wetlands are dynamic systems that were historically disturbed frequently, it may not be adequate to simply put a fence around a wetland and “walk-away” from it. In the absence of natural processes and disturbances, wetlands need some management. Management might include water-level changes, tree removal, burning, controlled grazing and haying, and sediment removal. There is a need to provide management assistance, especially to private landowners. 

  • Inventory — For many of Nebraska’s wetland complexes, our knowledge of the number and distribution of wetlands is very limited. This is especially true for many of our riparian, or streamside, wetlands. Inventories need to be completed and/or analyzed for these areas. National Wetland Inventory maps for Nebraska are based on aerial photography from the early 1980's. This inventory is in need of updating.

  • Research — There is a need to obtain better information on how wetlands function. This is especially true for some of the lesser known wetland complexes in Nebraska.

  • Education — Wetlands will be conserved only if we all understand wetland functions and place value on them. Emphasis on, and support for, wetlands education must continue.

Wetland Conservation Needs ???????????????????????

What You Can Do
If you are interested in helping to conserve wetland resources there are many ways to help:

  • Purchase a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (duck stamp) and a Nebraska Habitat Stamp. Wetlands conservation is a high priority of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and these efforts are funded through the sale of habitat stamps, and hunting, big game, fishing, and fur harvest permits. Funds raised by the sale of duck and habitat stamps all go into wildlife habitat projects. Some contributions to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Nongame and Endangered Species Fund also go toward wetland projects.

  • Join and support wetlands conservation groups.

  • Volunteer to adopt a wetland area. There are many projects that could use your help.

  • Participate in wetland restoration and management. If you own land, there are numerous programs available to help you with your wetland. If you don’t own land, inform your friends and neighbors who do about these opportunities and encourage them to participate.

  • Learn more about wetlands and share your knowledge with others including school classes and youth groups.

  • Support wetlands conservation legislation, programs and proposals. Be active in policy decisions – your voice counts.

  • Seek to incorporate wetlands conservation into city, county, and natural resources district planning.

  • Report illegal wetland drainage. Many activities are allowed in wetlands; however, if you’re uncertain, contact the
    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at (402) 896-0723 and/or your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office.

NEBRASKA’S REGIONAL WETLAND COMPLEXES  ( is this a duplicate? of the copy below)

(needs some clarification in copy here)

Playa Wetlands, Rainwater Basin, Central Table PlayasSouthwest PlayasTodd ValleySandhill Wetlands, SandhillsLoup/Platte River Sandhills;  Saline/Alkaline Wetlands Eastern Saline Western Alkaline; Riverine Wetlands Central Platte River  Lower North Platte River  Lower Platte River  Missouri River Elkhorn River Niobrara River

References {by Complex} Plant and Animal Lists  Wetlands — a source of great interest, and at times conflict. Wetlands represent different things to different people. At times they’re viewed as shallow, muddy nuisances while at other times they’re viewed as wonderful, varied and productive assets. This is because wetlands take on many roles as part of a complex and dynamic system. Understanding wetlands and wetland issues requires understanding the complex and varying roles that wetlands can play. To aid in this understanding, this guide defines wetlands, discusses their importance and dynamics, identifies threats and losses, describes conservation programs, and takes an in-depth look at Nebraska’s regional wetland complexes.


Nebraska’s wetland resources are as diverse and dynamic as those of any state in the nation. They include marshes, lakes, river and stream backwaters, oxbows, wet meadows, fens, forested swamps, and seep areas. These wetlands vary greatly in nature and appearance due to physical features such as geographic location, water source and permanence, and chemical properties. Some wetlands hold water for only a few weeks or less during the spring while others never go completely dry. Many wetlands receive their water from groundwater aquifers while others are totally dependent on precipitation and runoff. And finally, the water chemistry of wetlands ranges from fresh to saline, and from acidic to basic. These descriptions identify the extremes of wetland characteristics. Nebraska’s wetland resources possess these extremes and virtually every combination in between.


Wetlands occur throughout Nebraska, but for many purposes it is useful to identify some of the larger wetland complexes in the state. A complex is considered a geographically definable concentration of wetlands that are similar in form and function. The basis for these complexes and much of the information was adapted from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Nebraska Wetlands Priority Plan (Gersib 1991). These boundaries were refined, new boundaries added and wetland acreage and number statistics generated following procedures described by LaGrange et al. (2004).

The wetland complexes are grouped into four categories: playas, sandhills, saline/alkaline, and riverine. Six of the complexes were ranked by Gersib (1991) in the Nebraska Wetlands Priority Plan, and the rankings received were based on wetland functions, losses, and threats. The remaining eight complexes were not discussed or scored by Gersib (1991) and the information available for these complexes is considerably less. It needs to be strongly emphasized that even if a wetland is not located within one of the complexes, this does not mean it is unimportant or does not serve valuable functions. There are numerous wetlands, especially along Nebraska’s many streams and rivers, that are important components of the ecosystem.


Playa wetlands are wind-formed, nearly circular depressions located in semi-arid areas. They have a clay layer in the soil under the wetland that keeps runoff water from seeping into the ground. This clay layer was formed by water movement over thousands of years. Most playas are not directly connected to groundwater. Playa wetlands are located throughout the northwest three-fourths of the state, except in the Sandhills. The major playa complexes in Nebraska include the Rainwater Basins, Central Table Playas, Southwest Playas, and the Todd Valley


Sandhill wetlands are formed in depressions in sandhill areas where groundwater intercepts the surface of the land. The most notable complex is the Sandhills, a 20,000 square mile area containing over 1 million wetland acres. The other complex is the Loup/Platte River Sandhills. Additionally, sandhill type wetlands are located in southwest Nebraska, in the Sandhills Borders area along the Elkhorn and Niobrara rivers, and in scattered pockets south of the Platte River. 


Saline/Alkaline wetlands have saline (salty) or alkaline water. They receive their salts from either groundwater or through concentration by evaporation. The complexes in Nebraska include the Eastern Saline and the Western Alkaline. There are also some highly alkaline wetlands in the western Sandhills that are covered in the Sandhills Complex section. Additionally, moderately saline/alkaline wetlands are found in scattered pockets along much of the Platte River.


Riverine wetlands are closely associated with the riparian zones and floodplains of all of Nebraska’s rivers and streams. These riparian areas are complex systems with numerous inter-related components (e.g., wetlands, organic matter, sandbars, tree falls, side channels, etc.). Wetlands are an important component of this system by producing invertebrates and other organic matter that provide energy and food to other parts of the streams and river. Additionally, these wetlands provide spawning and nursery areas for many different types of fish, amphibians, and reptiles, and a home for numerous wildlife species. Although wetlands occur along all of Nebraska’s rivers, this guide focuses on the wetlands associated with the Platte, Missouri, Niobrara, and Elkhorn rivers. These complexes appear to contain the greatest river-associated wetland acreage remaining in the state. The Platte River contains important wetlands throughout its reach; however, in this guide, three segments are singled out for special consideration.

For additional information please contact:
Ted LaGrange Wetland Program Manager NGPC - P.O. Box 30370 Lincoln, NE 68503
Phone: (402) 471-5436, Fax: (402) 471-5528 e-mail-ted.legrange@nebraska.gov

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