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Michigan's Newest Dirty Job: Wetland Monitoring

Employees with MDEQ's first wetland monitoring program floating their gear over a stream. File photo
Anne Garwood, MDEQ

If you enjoy long walks through the mud, scaling fences, and doing paperwork under the hot sun - you’d love working for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s first ever wetland monitoring program. It’s a dirty job, but it’s the only way to find out if the state’s wetlands are healthy.

Anne Garwood and her team traipse through the water at one of the more than 18 wetland sites they visited this summer. Getting to these spots can be an adventure.

Garwood says each location is randomly selected by a computer. Sometimes that point is easy to get to - like when it’s near the edge of the wetland.

“But more often it’s somewhere deep in the middle. So for a very large wetland oftentimes that means you’re having to hike in and cross streams. So sometimes we’re having to wear waders and bring a sled to float all of our gear across a stream so that we can get to our point," says Garwood.

"Other times it means that you’re walking into a wetland that’s got really deep muck - which is what we run into a lot. And so you’re wearing waders and you’re carrying a heavy backpack or a bin full of gear but you’re sinking into muck up to your knee or your thigh and you’re having to really pull your foot out each time.”

That’s without having to get around barbed wire fences or thorny bushes - and if you think you’re sitting down for a relaxing lunch - forget about it.

“It’s usually pretty short and pretty dirty," says Garwood. "We have some you know wet wipes to try and wipe our hands down before we eat and stuff but it’s pretty dirty anyway.”

Garwood says between driving, walking to the location, sampling, paperwork, and getting back to home base - wetland check-ups usually take all day. Sometimes the team will book a hotel to stay overnight. 

It sounds like an exhausting job, but somebody’s got to do it. You see, the State of Michigan has never had a wetland monitoring program before. So we have no idea how our wetlands are doing. Are they healthy? Are they dying? We really do need to know.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than a third of all endangered and threatened species only live in wetlands. Garwood says climate change is making things even more complicated:

“We’re having some wetlands dry out, some wetlands get wetter. And those types of changes can significantly alter the quality of a wetland and can sometimes degrade it," she says.

The good news is almost half of wetlands in the U.S. are in good shape. Every five years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency releases something called the National Wetland Condition Assessment. This year’s report found that 48 percent of the country’s wetlands are healthy, but Garwood says that can be deceiving.

“We know that we’ve lost a lot of wetlands entirely and so even though EPA’s report found most wetlands remaining are in good quality, we do have to keep in mind that we’ve completely lost quite a few wetlands - almost half the wetlands in Michigan,” she says.

We’re still losing wetlands for a number of reasons - most of which have to do with us. Garwood says one of the biggest threats to wetlands in Michigan is something called ‘hardening.’ That’s where the soil gets too compacted - like when someone builds a road or maybe a shopping center.

“Even just being near a wetland, pavement can increase runoff. It can reduce shading in the wetland. It can break up the habitat so that it doesn’t provide the same habitat functions. It can increase flooding. So there’s a lot of impacts that even just nearby a wetland things like pavement and construction can have,” says Garwood.

Things like mowing over wetland plants, spraying herbicides, or overgrazing livestock in wetlands can hurt them too.

Central Michigan University does some of the lab work for Michigan DEQ. Doctoral student Neil Schock studies wetland macroinvertebrates - those small, bug-like animals that live in streams. He says this wetland monitoring program not only lets Michigan know how its wetlands are faring now, but it also gives the state a starting point.

“So that we can track our progress and make sure we’re heading in the right direction and doing what we can to manage what’s left of these very important ecosystems,” says Schock.

So how healthy are Michigan’s wetlands? Garwood says it will take about two or three years of data before we’ll find out. Until then, her team will have to keep wading through the water.

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