Wetland and water supply

Circular 431




The Geological Survey has received numerous inquiries about the effects of proposed changes in the wetland environment. The nature of the inquiries suggests a general confusion in the public mind as to wetland values and an increasing concern by the public with the need for facts as a basis for sound decisions when public action is required. Perhaps the largest gap in our knowledge is in regard to the role played by the wetland in the natural water scheme. Specialists in such fields as agriculture and conservation have studied the wetland in relation to its special uses and values for farming and as a habitat for fish and wildlife. However, except as studied incidentally by these specialists, the role of the wetland with respect to water has been largely neglected. This facet of the wetland problem is of direct concern to the Geological Survey. We commonly speak of water in terms of its place in the hydrologic environment---as, for example, surface water or ground water. These terms imply that water can be neatly pigeonholed. With respect to the wetland environment nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, one objective of this discussion is to demonstrate that for the wetland environment surface water, ground water, and soil water cannot be separated realistically, but are closely interrelated and must be studied together. It should be noted that this statement holds true for the hydrologic environment in general, and that the wetland environment is by no means unique in this respect. Our second and principal objective is to identify some of the problems that must be studied in order to clarify the role of the wetland in relation to water supply. We have chosen to approach these objectives by briefly describing one area for which we have some information, and by using this example to point out some of the problems that need study. First, however, let us define what we, as geohydrologists, mean by wetland and briefly consider wetland classifications. For our purpose wetlands are land areas that are covered with shallow water or subjected to intermittent flooding and subsequent slow drainage, and which generally are characterized by an accumulation of organic matter hereafter termed swamp deposits.' These wetlands may be classified in a number of different ways depending on the purpose of the classifier. For example, the Fish and Wildlife Service classifies wetlands into 20 different types based on water quality (fresh or salty), drainage, and vegetation. At the risk of some oversimplification we might consider 4 types of wetland from the standpoint of hydrology: (1) fresh-water swamps in which the swamp deposits are underlain by glacial till or bedrock; (2)fresh-water swamps in which the swamp deposits are underlain by marine or lacustrine clay and silt; (3) fresh-water swamps in which the swamp deposits are underlain by glacial outwash or alluvium consisting mostly of sand or sand and gravel; and (4) salt .marshes and salt meadows. The three fresh-water types of wetland are of interest with respect to water supply, and of these, the type in which swamp deposits are underlain by glacial outwash is of particular interest in New England. In the Ipswich River basin above the Geological Survey gaging station at South Middleton, Mass., is an area of 44 square miles which forms the headwaters section of the basin. The relief of the area is low. About half the area consists of hills mostly underlain by bedrock but mantled by a thin layer of glacial till. The other half consists Of lowlands---including swamps, low terraces and plains---underlain by glacial outwash, Swampland, used hereafter as a synonym for wetland, forms about a fourth of the area. Some of the swamps occupy depressions in the till blanket and are situated at somewhat higher levels than the lowlands. The largest swamps, however, border the Ipswich River and its tributaries. Here the swamp deposits, which consist of muck and peat mixed with s

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Wetland and water supply
Series title:
Series number:
Year Published:
[U.S. Geological Survey],
3 p. ;27 cm.