Wetlands: What Are They? Why Are They Important?

A wetland is an area of land that is either seasonally or permanently covered with water. It has distinctive hydrology, vegetation, and soil types that can be delineated and categorized as a wetland. They are transition zones where the flow of water, the cycling of nutrients, and the sun’s energy meet to produce a unique ecosystem. Wetlands are essential features of a watershed, and in the Willits Valley, the creeks that flow down the surrounding mountains overflow and help to create the “Little Lake” on the north end. This area has native wetland plants such as tules, cattails, rushes, sedges, grasses, and many other herbaceous plants that live in wet habitats. The Bypass Project also has two rare California listed annual plants associated with wetlands. Baker’s meadowfoam, Limnanthes bakeri, is found throughout the open meadows that are inundated each winter.  North coast semaphore grass, Pleuropogon hooverianus, is found in woodlands that are also saturated with seasonal standing water.

Wetlands are important for many reasons. They provide habitat for many species of aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals. Although they cover only 6 percent of the Earth’s land surface, 40 percent of all plant and animal species live or breed in wetlands (FWS – https://www.fws.gov/story/2023-04/why-healthy-wetlands-are-vital-protecting-endangered-species). Wetlands are home to waterfowl and other species of birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, fish, crayfish, and insects. Migrating birds use wetlands as a place to rest and feed during their fall and spring migration from north to south or cross-continentally. Our residents and spring migrant birds use wetlands as nesting and feeding sites.

Wetlands help absorb rainfall to help with flooding. They slow and absorb the floodwaters, nutrients, sediments, and other pollutants before they reach the rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water. This helps to improve the water quality and maintain ecosystem productivity, reduces coastal storm damage, and provides opportunity for recreation. Bird watching, fishing, hunting, and photography are some of the activities that people enjoy in wetland habitats.

When we have large amounts of rainfall the ground becomes saturated which causes ponding, flooding, and the formation of wetlands. This is what is happening right now on the Willits Bypass Mitigation Lands and throughout the Willits Valley. Winter is an excellent time to experience the beauty and significance of wetlands here in the valley. We get large ponding areas where creeks have overflowed their banks which can be seen from Highway 101 and Reynolds Highway. These areas are great for spotting all kinds of waterfowl, Bald Eagles, and other birds. Mammals are also on the move and more easily seen because of the water.

Yesterday, I had the experience of observing a large bobcat sunning itself above the water line. I have seen coyotes, foxes, and Tule elk doing the same. The flooding also causes rodents to leave their underground tunnels and head for higher ground. These become prey items for many predators including the raptors who live here or migrate here during the fall and winter months.

Wetland habitat is fragile and will depend on human activity to recover what was lost. Drainage and diversion of stream flows were common practice in the past, but there are positive restoration efforts occurring across the country as the importance of wetlands is more understood.  About half of the listed threatened and endangered species in the United States are dependent on wetlands. How wonderful it is that we have a thriving and protected wetland habitat right here where we live!