Michigan law defines a wetland as “land characterized by the presence of water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances does support, wetland vegetation or aquatic life, and is commonly referred to as a bog, swamp, or marsh.” In simpler terms, “wetland” describes an area where land and water meet.
Wetlands are not always easy to spot. Places with a high ground water table—like meadows, fields, and forests—may also qualify as wetlands, even if no standing water is visible. Generally, wetlands are characterized by the presence of three factors: (1) water, (2) wetland soils, and (3) wetland vegetation. The presence of water above the soil or near the surface is merely the starting point for wetlands. Over time, increased water levels can lead to physical, chemical, and biological changes in the surrounding environment. High concentrations of water create hydric soil, or soil that no longer contains oxygen due to water saturation. In turn, wetland plants have special adaptations that allow them to thrive in the water-saturated soils.
Wetlands are a vital part of Michigan’s natural resources. Many terrestrial and aquatic organisms call wetlands home, including rare, threatened, and endangered species. Wetlands provide nutrients in water food cycles. Additionally, wetlands are a source of valuable watersheds and ground water supplies. Wetlands also help control the negative effects of storms, floods, pollution, and erosion by absorbing water and filtering chemicals and silt. Finally, wetlands are popular locations for a variety of recreational activities, including hiking, bird watching, and hunting.
Despite their inherent value, over half of Michigan’s wetlands have been drained or filled. In an effort to preserve these natural resources, restrictions and conditions have been placed on the use and development of wetland property. While the presence of water, wetland soils, and wetland vegetation are clear indicators of wetlands, an on-site inspection is the best way to determine whether wetlands are present.