On Friday afternoon, faculty and students filled the room in the W.B. Young Building at the University of Connecticut to hear Kate Ballantine’s research findings on the irreplaceable environmental functions of natural wetlands and how restoration can attempt to bridge the gap.
Ballantine, an associate professor at Mount Holyoke College and the director of the restoration ecology program at the school, discussed long-term development and ecosystem function of restored wetlands, as well as how they compare to natural sites.
Restored wetlands are never the same as the original ecosystems, she said.
“While restoration is totally worthwhile, it’s not an excuse to destroy natural wetlands,” Ballantine said. “Which we know net loss policy has been used to support.”
The big question, Ballantine said, is how to restore wetlands when we hardly know anything about them.
Ballantine said wetlands are “areas where water is the defining factor in determining what kinds of animals and plants live there because it affects the soil.”
Most wetlands have been lost due to agriculture and development, Ballantine said. These wetlands have been drained or filled so they can be used for crops, or for building developments.
“Here in Connecticut, you’ve lost about 74 percent of wetlands from the 17 to 1980’s, and there’s been an additional 5,000 plus acres lost in the years since 1980,” Ballantine said. “So it is a serious problem.”
A part of the Clean Water Act adopted in 1989, called the No Net Loss Policy, was designed to protect these rapidly diminishing ecosystems, Ballantine said.
“There’s this program that said ‘any time you destroy a wetland, you have to build a new one’…therefore, natural wetlands that were damaged or destroyed are theoretically being replaced,” Ballantine said.
Ballantine studied a variety of restored wetlands, some up to 55-years-old, in an attempt to understand how they develop over time.
Natural wetlands contain an abundance of decomposed organic material. Restored wetlands contain a lot less of this matter, Ballantine said, and even after 55 years, the soil organic matter was still about half the natural level.
Ballantine said another part of her research was in amendments to treat wetland soil with different additives: straw, topsoil, biochar, or a combination of these. These amendments would add carbon to the soil in an attempt to improve soil organic matter.
“Wetlands soils are slow to develop, and yes we can add carbon to those soils through amendments, and it does… increase important functions like denitrification, but they’re still way below the natural reference levels,” Ballantine said.
One very important function of natural wetlands, Ballantine said, is denitrification.
“Denitrification is this free microbial process that in the right conditions, just removes all of that nitrate back to the atmosphere, where it’s harmless,” Ballantine said.
Ballantine tested to see what amendments would improve the denitrification function in restored wetlands, and the results pointed to topsoil, she said.
“All processes and products of the nitrogen cycle were highest in topsoil plots,” Ballantine said.
Ballantine said she also wanted to answer the question: are there any unintended consequences of restoration?
“We see that desirable functions are improved by restoration but so is the undesirable function of methane production, but that can actually decrease over time,” she said.
Jessie Sanzo, fifth-semester natural resources major, said she was attending the event for a class, but that Ballantine generated a lot of interest in the topic.
“It was a very interesting conversation,” Sanzo said. She said Ballantine, “explained everything really well…so anyone could understand her research.”
The overall conclusion to take away from all of this research is that restoration is effective, and certain methods help the process even more, Ballantine said.
“The knowledge that we gather from studying these ecosystems will be used by practitioners to do better work in the future and to encourage more restoration work in the future,” Ballantine said.
Natalie Baliker is a campus correspondent for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Natalie.Baliker@uconn.edu.