Tall purple flowers bloom next to small wetland.
Indiana's wetlands threatened Learn why wetlands are so important. © John Shuey/TNC

Stories in Indiana

Protecting Indiana's Wetlands

Where will the water go?

Over the past few years, we’ve seen more intense rainfall and storms in Indiana, resulting in extreme flooding of local waterways. Wetlands that used to soak up excess water now have become parking lots and rooftops. Without wetlands, where will all that water go? Check your basement.

It may seem nature is to blame for these challenges, but wetlands show us that nature is also the solution.

Power of Wetlands (1:01) Wetlands are nature’s solution to flooding and water quality challenges in Indiana. We can't lose our wetlands!

What is a Wetland?

Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year.
There are many types of wetlands, such as marshes, swamps, fens, bogs and oxbow lakes; all provide a myriad of benefits to nature and people. The Nature Conservancy in Indiana is working to locate and conserve wetlands across the state, restoring the benefits they once provided on the landscape. The function of a wetland is also mimicked in solutions we champion such as two-stage ditches and winter cover crops. 

Wetlands Benefit People

Aside from the rich collection of natural wonders and recreational opportunities that wetlands provide, they also create safer and healthier communities in the form of flood resiliency. Flood–related disasters have become yearly events in Indiana. Not only do floods impact travel, cause safety issues and flood agricultural crops, sewage systems overflow, homes flood, belongings are destroyed, and the risks of intestinal illnesses rise among people exposed to contaminated floodwater.

Wetlands store excess water (up to 1 million gallons an acre, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) which helps mitigate the increasingly frequent and intense flooding we've seen over the last 30 years. Wetlands also filter pollutants before they reach the aquifers many Hoosiers draw their water from, reducing the effort needed to make it safe for drinking.

Chart showing the 20 greatest floods in New Harmony, Indiana, with most of them being in the last 15 years.
Flooding in Indiana Flooding is increasing in Indiana as witnessed on the Wabash River at New Harmony. A gage has been measuring the river depth there for more than 100 years! Of the twenty highest flood peaks on the Wabash River as measured at New Harmony, 15 of those have been within the past 30 years. © National Weather Service

Chart showing New Harmony, IN, flooding over the past 100 years.

Wetlands clean water as dense plant communities filter toxic substances and soak up fertilizer-rich storm waters.

And let's not discount the important role wetlands play in the life cycles of plants and animals, including rare and endangered species like four-toed salamanders. People who like to observe these natural wonders know the intrinsic value of wetlands and the joy they bring.

While nature provides these services without cost, they do have value. Each acre of wetland annually provides $248 worth of purification, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. A single acre also provides $2,270 in water storage services and $1,055 worth of erosion prevention.

That means the annual value of these services from all of Indiana's wetlands (roughly 800,000 acres) is $202 million in water purification, $1.8 billion in water storage and $850 million in erosion prevention. Combined, that's almost the amount Indiana stands to gain from the one-time Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, except that wetlands provide these benefits year after year.

Sometimes the value of something is only realized in its loss, but Indiana’s wetlands are valued by Indiana residents who want to ensure their survival. From merely an economic standpoint, it makes good business sense to conserve wetlands

Young person stands next to an isolated wetland.
Leo Berry Helping Ninja helping wetlands. © Lindsey Berry

Helping Ninja Leo Berry

When 11-year old Leo Berry heard about Indiana Senate Wetlands Bill 389, he knew he wanted to do everything he could to stop the bill. The founder of Helping Ninjas ultimately secured more than 30,000 signatures on an electronic petition of people opposing the state removing protections for wetlands.

“We have to protect nature and since nature cannot talk, I want to show kids how to be the voice for nature,” he said. “It is important to conserve nature because it is vital to our survival and if we don’t speak up for nature, who will? It is our future, our home, we must learn how to protect it.”

Leo sold emoji stickers on his website and donated the proceeds to TNC. He also served as spokesperson for our Speak Up for Nature! campaign on Earth Day. In 2021, he was given the Indiana Brilliant Firefly Award by Lieutenant Governor Suzanne Crouch for his exceptional engagement with the legislative process as well as his dedication to protecting the environment.

TNC staff Cassie Hauswald displays freshwater mussel.
Cassie Hauswald TNC's Freshwater Ecologist in Indiana, Cassie works statewide to promote healthy waterways for people and nature. © Melissa Molenda/TNC

Protecting Indiana's Oxbow Lakes

The crescent-shaped oxbow lakes along the Wabash River in southwestern Indiana seem simple enough, yet these types of wetlands are hotspots of biodiversity. The oxbow lakes of the lower Wabash and White Rivers provide important habitat for river fish, many of which use these lakes as nurseries for their young. The oxbow lakes on the Lower Wabash and White Rivers are special because they are still in communication with the river, meaning that when the water rises, the lakes become an extension of the river, offering flood water storage and importing and exporting fish.

An oxbow lake forms as a river meanders and creates large bends in the channel, which are eventually cut off from the river. In time, sediments fill in the upstream and downstream ends of the bend, creating a horseshoe-shaped body of water. Oxbow lakes present an opportunity to conserve a piece of Indiana’s natural history, the Wabash “bottoms.”

Cassie Hauswald, freshwater ecologist for TNC's Indiana Chapter, has been working with researchers to determine where oxbow lake protection and restoration efforts will have the greatest impact. These efforts include reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment runoff entering the lakes and rivers and planting trees to provide natural filtration along the shorelines.

Working with Communities

The Lower Wabash River & White River Oxbow Wetland Reserve Easement Program (WREP)seeks to enroll 1,000 floodplain acres into conservation easements. Working with our partners--the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Conservation Law Center--the goal is to enroll historically underserved landowners in the historic Lyle’s Station area, which was settled in the early 1800s and is one of the last remaining Black American settlements in the state.

The project focus is to reduce nutrients in the Wabash River and to improve important habitat around priority oxbow lakes for monarch butterflies, migratory birds and large river fish species.

Be a Wetland Warrior

Just as we need our trail advocates, forest guardians and water keepers, we need our wetland warriors! Familiarize yourself with wetlands in your area and champion our wetlands and the multitude of gifts they provide.

We cannot accept further net loss of this incredible and dynamic resource. We need to work towards increasing the footprint of wetlands through further conservation and restoration—our lives, our communities and our planet will be better for it.