Midwest Wetlands May Prevent Disastrous Flood From Climate Change, Study Says

Wetlands may prevent catastrophic flooding in the future in the Midwest, as scientists have found that as climate change increases flooding, wetlands may be the solution. (Photo : USDA Natural Resources conservation Service)

Wetlands may actually help prevent catastrophic floods in the future. Researchers at Oregon State University have taken a closer look at the possibility of restoring wetlands in the Midwest and found that they have the potential to significantly reduce peak river flows during floods.

“Flood management in the Midwest is now almost entirely concentrated on use of dams and levels,” said Meghna Babbar-Sebens, assistant professor of civil engineering in the College of Engineering. “Wetland construction or restoration could provide a natural and ecological option to help with flood concerns, and serve as an additional tool for flood management. Greater investments in this approach, or similar approaches that increase storage of water in the upper landscape of a watershed, should be seriously considered.”

In this latest study, the researchers examined climate models that were supported by the North American Regional Climate Change Assessment Program in order to examine the impact of wetlands during climate scenarios that ranged from 2041 to 2070.

“There’s some variation in the models, but there’s general agreement that the future will bring more heavy precipitation events,” Babbar-Sebens said. ”How we transfer and store runoff on the landscape is going to become even more critical. From the perspective of a decision maker, an advantage of wetland construction is that it would significantly reduce flooding from heavy precipitation in almost every possible scenario. Wetlands are consistently effective.”

With that said, many programs that support wetland restoration focus on ecology, wildlife enhancement and water quality. While these aren’t bad things to focus on, there’s limited funding to create wetlands for flood management. In addition, it limits economic incentives for farmers and other landowners to set aside areas for wetlands.

Unfortunately, climate change is exacerbating flooding issues. In 2011, Indiana experienced a record-breaking heat wave and record-breaking rainfall. In fact, the state has been declared a flood disaster area 14 times between 2000 and 2011. That’s compared to four times just a decade prior to that.

It’s likely that flooding will continue to increase in the future. That’s why it’s important to put practices that will help mitigate flooding into effect. By encouraging wetland creation, it may be possible to lower the risk of flooding in some regions.

The findings were published in the April 2016 issue of the journal Ecological Engineering.

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