USGS Water Resources
National Water Summary on Wetland Resources
United States Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 2425

Wetland Management and Research
Wetland Research by Federal Agencies

By Richard E. Coleman, U.S.Army Corps of Engineers
Edward T. LaRoe, National Biological Service and
Russell F. Theriot, U.S.Army Corps of Engineers


Because wetlands were drained and filled for farming and building purposes during the last several hundred years, more than half of the original wetlands in the United States have been lost (Frayer and others, 1983). Only during the last quarter century has society begun to understand the value of wetlands and the particular benefits that they provide. (See the article "History of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States" in this volume.) This understanding has been broadened by the concerted efforts of many public and private researchers. This article addresses the research contributions of Federal agencies: which agencies are involved in wetland research, why they are involved, and the nature of their research.

In an effort to develop a strategy for preventing the further loss of wetlands, the Committee on Earth and Environmental Sciences established a Wetlands Research Subcommittee to determine the status of wetland research being conducted by Federal agencies. These efforts resulted in an unpublished report that presented a national inventory and data base of ongoing research and addressed future research needs (Wetlands Research Subcommittee, unpub. data, 1992). Data presented in the following few pages are drawn largely from these findings.

During 1992, Federal wetland research expenditures were about $63 million. A total Federal investment of more than $250 million is distributed over the lifetime of the existing projects. The amount of Federal research spending per State is depicted in figure 41.

The under-
standing of wetlands as a valued resource has been broadened by the concerted efforts of many public and private researchers.

Figure 41

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Cost of Federal agency wetland research, per State, during fiscal year 1992. (Source: Federal Wetlands Research Inventory and Database, unpub. data, 1992; compiled by the Wetlands Research and Technology Center, U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Waterways Experiment Stateion, Vicksburg, Miss.)


Scientists from many organizations, including those in the private sector, those from colleges and universities, and those from public institutions, are engaged in wetland research. Typically, each organization has its own reasons for being involved in wetland research. Federal wetland research may be done because it is part of an agency's mission, is part of an agency's responsibilities as outlined by the Congress, or is otherwise in the national interest.

When research is mission oriented, it is part of the basic work of an agency. Mission-oriented Federal agency wetland research generally is done for one of five reasons:

  1. Ownership-The agency owns and is responsible for managing wetlands. The agency is the steward of its land.
  2. Public trust responsibilities- An agency may be responsible for ensuring the long-term survival of certain fish and other wildlife resources, which are held in trust for the public. Wetlands form critical habitat and are part of the ecological system on which many of these species depend.
  3. Regulatory responsibilities- Because wetlands provide so many benefits to society, activities that adversely affect them may be subject to regulation. Some agencies, therefore, have regulatory authority over wetlands
  4. Development activities- Federal agencies have an obligation to avoid projects or actions that may adversely affect wetlands, to minimize the negative effects of their activities on wetlands, and to mitigate unavoidable wetland losses. These requirements apply to all Federal agencies, but those regularly involved in large-scale development projects support specific wetland research activities.
  5. Science-Agencies that have missions directly related to science may conduct or support research on wetlands.
Although many different levels of government may have mission-oriented research, Federal agency wetland research activities relate to congressionally mandated responsibilities. Most significant among these are provisions that relate to:
  • Interstate commerce- Wetlands are part of the entire physical landscape, from river headwaters to the sea. They form parts of water bodies that provide shipping, transportation, and navigation. Some wetlands are used as routes for trade in interstate commerce, and wetland products are used in interstate trade. What happens to wetlands in one State can affect wetland activities, benefits, and uses in another State.
  • International treaties-The benefits and uses of wetlands are the subject of international treaties, such as the Ramsar Convention of 1971 and the Migratory Bird Treaty, which are the exclusive domain of the Federal Government. International efforts that result from those treaties, such as efforts between Canada, Mexico, and the United States to restore declining wetland-dependent waterfowl populations, have an essential Federal element. (See article "Wetlands as Bird Habitat" in this volume.)
There is also an intrinsic national interest in wetland research. Where wetland questions or issues are widespread or shared by jurisdictions, or affect the national health, safety, or welfare, Congress may determine that there is a national interest that justifies Federal agency research.



The Federal Wetlands Research Inventory and Database reported in 1992 that 18 Federal agencies were conducting some wetland research (Wetlands Research Subcommittee, unpub. data, 1992). Two types of research were included in the inventory-focused and contributing. Focused research is specifically designed to investigate wetlands or some component thereof; contributing research provides some information about wetlands but is not directly related to wetlands.

Research categories also were identified by the Inventory and Database. These categories were defined by the subject of the wetland research being conducted, and were listed in five topical areas:

  1. Wetland processes-Research to address factors that affect the type, location, size, and functions of wetlands.
  2. Wetland functions-Research to determine the role wetlands play and the benefits they provide.
  3. Human-induced stresses- Research to improve ways of detecting or quantifying the effects of stress on wetlands, or of determining stress thresholds of wetlands.
  4. Wetland delineation and identification-Research on methods and techniques to identify wetlands and delineate wetland boundaries.
  5. Management-Research to develop tools and technologies to maintain, restore, and construct wetlands.


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Figure 42. Summary of Federal agency wetland research expenditures by research category during 1992. (Source: Federal Wetlands Research Inventory and Database, unpub. data, 1992; compiled by the Wetlands Research and Technology Center, U.S. Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, Miss.)

Figure 42 depicts the expenditures on Federal research in each of these categories in 1992. Individual research studies may span several of these categories; however, these categories represent a convenient way to describe existing research activities.

In addition to distinguishing the type of research, it also is useful to distinguish the type of wetland being studied. Because ecological processes and functions differ with the type of wetland, research needs and techniques also differ. Disappearing coastal and bottom-land hardwood wetlands are among the major areas of research. Figure 43 shows Federal expenditures for research on different types of wetlands. (See article Wetland Definitions and Classification in the Conterminous United States" for an explanation of wetland types.)


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Figure 43. Summary of Federal agency wetland research expenditures by wetland type during 1992. (Sources: Federal Wetlands Research Inventory and Database, unpub. data, 1992; compiled by the Wetlands Research and Technology Center, U.S. Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, Miss.)



Federal wetland research is conducted throughout the Nation. Twelve agencies listed in the Wetland Research Subcommittee's report and discussed below have wetland research expenditures of $1 million or more. Although not discussed below, other agencies with less funding that also contribute to wetland research are the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Mines, Bureau of Reclamation, Minerals Management Service, and Office of Surface Mining; the Federal Highway Administration's Department of Transportation; and the National Science Foundation.


Department of the Interior

Wetland research activities in the Department of the Interior relate to its responsibilities as the primary steward of America's natural resources. The Department of the Interior performs basic scientific research on wetland processes and functions and applied focused research on human-induced stresses, delineation and identification, and management of wetlands. The Department assumes ownership and management responsibilities for wetlands through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Park Service, and scientific research responsibilities through the activities of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Biological Service (NBS). Research funding for the Department was greater than $30.5 million in 1992 (figs. 42-43).

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: The FWS has stewardship responsibilities for fish and other wildlife (such as migratory birds, anadromous fish, and endangered species), their habitats, and for wildlife refuges. As a major Federal landowner, the FWS protects and manages wetlands and associated habitats on more than 90 million acres of national wildlife refuges and provides advice about and technical support for regulatory activities and trust species to other Federal, State, and private landowners. The FWS, through the National Wetlands Inventory program, provides detailed wetland maps for the Nation, and also reports to Congress every 10 years the status and trends of the Nation's wetlands. (See article "Wetland Mapping and Inventory" in this volume.) Research focuses on improved methods and tools for identifying and delineating different wetland types.

U.S. Geological Survey: The USGS provides geologic, hydrologic, and topographic information to assist Federal, State, and local governments, the private sector, and individual citizens in making management decisions about the use of land and water resources. The USGS's wetland research activities are an important part of the agency's activities. Research focuses on the geology, chemistry, hydrology, and biology of wetlands and their interactions. Studies are conducted in selected wetlands to determine the processes responsible for the formation and evolution of wetlands and to increase understanding of wetland functions. Some specific topics that hydrologic studies address are ground-water/surface-water interactions; the role of wetlands in water-quality improvement; the relation between flood-plain wetlands, riverine and estuarine hydrology, and water quality; and the relation of light and water chemistry to aquatic plant distribution in tidal waters.

Core sample

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Core sample being collected by the U.S. Geological Survey at a fen in Minn., tells the sediment history of this particular wetland. (Photograph by Nancy Rybicki, U.S. Geological Survey.)


National Park Service: Wetland research by the National Park Service is primarily issue driven; it is management-oriented and focuses on protecting resources, mitigating the effects of human actions on wetlands, and restoring natural wetland functions where they have been disturbed by past or ongoing human activities.

National Biological Service: The NBS was established in October 1993 and, therefore, was not included in the report by the Wetland Research Subcommittee and not included in the graphs in figures 42-43. However, it is a large player in research being done on wetlands and, therefore, is included in this discussion. The NBS inventories and monitors wetlands and conducts biological research on many aspects of wetlands; in fact, most activities of the NBS are wetland related. It provides biological information and research support to management agencies within the Federal Government.


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The National Biological Service collects turtlegrass near Chandeleur Islands, La., to study the effects of water quality on the plant. (Photograph courtesy of The National Biological Service.)


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The National Biological Service collects bulltongue in a marsh near Lake Salvador, La., for use in greenhouse experiments in salinity and flooding tolerance. (Photograph courtesy of The National Biological Service.)

What happens to wetlands in one State can affect wetland activities, benefits, and uses in another State.

Department of Energy

Department of Defense

The Department of Energy's role in and responsibilities toward wetland research are related to its compliance with environmental regulations. The Department does this by assessing the environmental effects of its activities on lands, including wetlands, under its jurisdiction, and by operating and developing facilities in ways that maintain and enhance environmental quality while providing efficient energy production, transmission, and use. Research focuses on supporting these activities. Research funding was about $10.3 million in 1992 (figs. 42-43).

Cache River

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collects water-level data at a bottom-land hardwood wetland located along the Cache River, Ark. (Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)

Wetland research activities of the Department of Defense result primarily from legislation pertaining to the mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps). The Army, through the Corps, is assigned responsibility for much of the Nation's water-resource development activities, including efforts to protect, conserve, restore, and establish new wetlands. In performing its development mission, such as keeping waterways open by dredging or building levees to protect cities from flooding, the Corps directly affects wetlands and must consider the effects of its activities. The Corps has established a formal Wetlands Research Program to support its wetland-related responsibilities. This program is designed to include both basic and applied research that emphasize the Corps strengths in engineering design and construction, stewardship, and management. Research funding for the Corps in 1992 was about $6.5 million (figs. 42-43).

Kenilworth Marsh

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dewatered this freshwater wetland at a restoration site at Kenilworth Marsh in Maryland to facilitate planting. Dewatering was achieved by building temporary dikes made from water-filled tubes designed by the Corps for this purpose. (Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)


Department of Agriculture

The Department of Agriculture performs wetland research through several of its agencies; the Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly known as the Soil Conservation Service), the Agricultural Research Service, and the U.S. Forest Service. Research funding for the Department of Agriculture was about $4.5 million in 1992 (figs. 42-43).

Natural Resources Conservation Service: The Natural Resources Conservation Service assists other Federal, State, and local governments in resource conservation activities that include wetland protection. Their authority covers mainly lands with high potential for conversion to agricultural uses.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service's plant materials centers develop new varieties of plants and the technology for using plants to solve soil and water-conservation problems. They also provide for the commercial production of these plants. Some of the centers conduct investigations on how to reestablish marsh vegetation along eroding tidal shores in the mid-Atlantic States and the Gulf Coast States from Alabama to Mexico. Projects are underway at other centers to develop new varieties of plants and encourage plant reproduction, to develop techniques for establishing and maintaining restored and created freshwater wetlands, and to design and construct wetlands that act as biological filters of agricultural runoff.

Economic Research Service: Although the Economic Research Service is not one of the agencies listed in the Wetland Research Subcommittee report, its research is integral to oversight of the Wetland Reserve Program by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (see the article Wetland Protection Legislation" in this volume), and is, therefore, mentioned in this discussion. The Economic Research Service conducts cost and benefit comparison studies to determine effective economic incentives associated with wetland conservation or destruction. Because the Wetland Reserve Program is voluntary, research focuses on identifying costs that limit farmers' participation.

Agricultural Research Service: The Agricultural Research Service's mission includes development of technology needed to ensure maintenance of environmental quality and natural resources. Their research supports implementation of Federal agricultural legislation and development of new agricultural practices that produce less off-site contamination. Many programs indirectly contribute to national wetland goals by improving management of basins that drain into wetlands.

U.S. Forest Service: The U.S. Forest Service conducts research to support improved management of Federal, State, and private forests; the research comprises efforts to describe ecosystem dynamics and to develop improved technology for restoring and rehabilitating forested wetlands. Research is conducted on the role of flowing water in sustaining chemical, physical, and biological processes integral to the functioning of wetland and riparian ecosystems. The Forest Service also conducts studies of technological improvements used for reforesting wetland and riparian sites, which involves understanding how tree species adapt to flooding. Other areas of study include establishing understory vegetation, restoring wetland hydrology, and rehabilitating fish and other wildlife habitat.


Department of Commerce

The Department of Commerce conducts its research through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1992, funding for research by the Department was about $3 million (figs. 42-43).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) mission is to manage our ocean and coastal resources, describe and predict changes in the Earth's oceans and atmosphere, and promote its global stewardship through scientific research and service. Three of NOAA's five organizations are directly involved in wetland research: the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Ocean Service, and the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. NOAA also has a relevant agency-wide program, the Coastal Ocean Program, which supports management of the coastal ocean environment.

The Coastal Ocean Program is intended to provide scientific products that support coastal ocean management through improved understanding and prediction of environmental quality, fishery resources, and coastal hazards. One of the Coastal Ocean Program's component programs seeks to understand and quantify the relation between estuarine habitat and coastal ocean productivity. Initial research has been focused on locating and determining rates of loss of seagrasses, emergent marshes, and adjacent uplands using satellite and aerial photography. Research is being conducted on the functional attributes of these habitats and their capability of being restored.

National Marine Fisheries Service: This organization is the Federal steward of the Nation's living marine resources, from 200 miles offshore (the seaward extent of the Nation's assessment of mineral and energy sources) to the freshwater tributaries used by anadromous species for spawning. National Marine Fisheries Service's scientists conduct basic and applied research to advance understanding of wetland habitat functioning in response to natural and human-induced environmental changes, to develop improved techniques for habitat restoration and assessment, and to support the habitat permit review process. The National Marine Fisheries Service's Restoration Center develops and implements habitat restoration plans that seek to restore, replace, or acquire the equivalent of the resources determined to have been injured by releases of oil or hazardous substances to the environment.

National Ocean Service: This organization administers programs that provide support for managing marine environments. It manages a national network of marine sanctuaries and estuarine research reserves. The estuarine research reserves, throughout the National Estuarine Research Reserves System, are established, managed, and maintained with the help of State authorities to assure their long-term protection. Research activities are used to facilitate management of wetlands. Priorities change biennially and have included nonpoint-source pollution (1993-94) and habitat restoration (1994-95).

Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research: This organization is responsible for conducting research that improves understanding and prediction of oceanic and atmospheric conditions. This includes investigating processes that regulate wetland ecosystem structure and production, the responses of these systems to natural and human-induced conditions, and the effects of global climate and other atmospheric conditions on marine resources and ecosystems.

Oyster reef

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National Marine Fisheries Service scientists study the effects of oyster-shell reefs on sedimentation and use by marine organisms in this created wetland at Swansboro Marsh, N.C. (Photograph by David L. Meyer, National Marine Fisheries Service)


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National Marine Fisheries Service scientists, using a drop sampler, collect aquatic organisms in a salt marsh on Galveston Island, Tex. This is often done to assess damages following an oil spill. (Photograph by Lawrrence P. Rozas, National Marine Fisheries Service)


U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Tennessee Valley Authority

Research needs within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are extensive. The Wetlands Research Program of the EPA is an applied research program that primarily provides technical support to improve the Agency's ability to carry out its regulatory responsibilities. Three components of the Wetlands Research Program are the Wetland Function Project, the Characterization and Restoration Project, and the Landscape Function Project. Detailed studies of individual wetlands conducted to understand better the processes within wetlands that contribute to wetland functions and wetland responses to environmental stressors are carried out through the Wetland Function Project. Studies of the characteristics of groups of wetlands that compare the functions of natural, restored, and created wetlands within similar geographic settings are carried out through the Characterization and Restoration Project. Research is conducted on the interactions of wetlands with other ecosystems and on the cumulative effects of human activities on wetland functions through the Landscape Function Project. In 1992, EPA's funding for wetland research was about $3 million (figs. 42-43).

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a resource management agency created by the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. Its research focuses on both natural and constructed wetlands. Natural-wetlands research is directed toward protecting and enhancing aquatic bed, emergent, and riparian forested wetlands and the wildlife populations dependent on them. Constructed-wetlands research is directed toward designing and operating constructed wetlands to solve specific waste-management or environmental problems and examining the basic mechanics and physiology of these systems. Wetland research is conducted in the field, in laboratories, and at a unique 32-celled physical model at a constructed-wetland research facility in Muscle Shoals, Ala. In 1992, funding for research was about $3 million (figs. 42-43).

Smithsonian Institution

Smithsonian research on wetlands is focused on the biota, hydrology, and functions of wetlands. Aerial photographs, remote sensing, and Geographic Information Systems are used to extend research results from specific sites to larger regions and to relate wetlands to their drainage basins. Research support comes directly from Congress, from Smithsonian trust funds, and from extramural grants and contracts. Funding for research in 1992 was about $1 million (figs. 42-43).

The information derived from broad-scope, individual agency research may comple- ment that of other agencies.

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Local teachers work in cooperation with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists to measure elevations and create site maps on this restored wetland in Portland, Oreg. (Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.)



Federal agencies conduct wetland research to execute their congressionally mandated missions. Generally these research efforts fall within well-defined limits. By necessity, some agencies conduct research with a broad range of activities. The information derived from broad-scope, individual agency research may complement that of other agencies.

Federal agencies have special obligations, as stewards of public monies, to get the most out of research dollars. Effective coordination is essential to assure that agencies efficiently budget and use research funds, to ensure that research is not duplicated by two or more agencies (and money wasted), and to ensure that the best science" is achieved. Federal agencies involved in wetland research use formal and informal coordination mechanisms to achieve these goals.

Informal coordination takes many forms. It includes scientists from each agency communicating directly with scientists in other agencies about matters of common interest. It also includes many adhoc committees and working groups organized to accomplish general coordination as well as specific research objectives. Among the adhoc committees is the Federal Interagency Coordination Committee on Wetlands Research and Development, a voluntary group that meets annually in Washington, D.C., to present the status of agency research programs and discuss areas of potential interaction. This Committee developed the first National Summary of Ongoing Wetlands Research by Federal Agencies (U.S. Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station, 1992). All Federal agencies that perform wetland research are invited to these meetings. Another voluntary adhoc committee, the Forested Wetlands Research and Development Interagency Coordination Committee, formed working groups and developed a multiyear interagency research proposal for work in forested wetlands in Southern States. The Corps, the NBS, and the FWS provide funds for this research; and the EPA, Agricultural Research Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service actually do the research.

Federal agencies have special obligations, as stewards of public monies, to get the most out of research dollars.

Federal agencies also use informal scientific reviews of individual projects and entire programs for coordination. The purpose of these reviews is to expose a project or program to external review and comment, as well as to provide a forum for exchanging views and ideas about each participating agency's project or program. The wetland research programs operated by the Corps, FWS, and EPA, and projects of the NBS's National Wetland Research Center and Cooperative Research Units Center regularly receive external peer review. Several Federal agencies regularly hold interagency planning meetings to discuss new wetland research goals and projects, solicit comments, and explore areas for potential partnerships and cooperation.

Agencies with responsibilities for regulating and managing Federal lands, which include wetlands, conduct workshops, seminars, and other informal meetings to facilitate effective interaction and coordination of their research. Professional societies, scientific literature, agency publications, newsletters, bulletins, and topical conferences also offer mechanisms for coordination and information exchange.

More formal coordination is achieved through exchange agreements, in which scientists may be exchanged from one agency to another for specific periods to provide needed expertise. As an example, the Wetlands Classification System developed by the FWS was prepared with full-time assistance of scientists from the Corps and the Soil Conservation Service, and the authors of the report defining the system (Cowardin and others, 1979) included representatives from the FWS, the USGS, and NOAA. Written agreements such as Memorandums of Agreement or Memorandums of Understanding also are used to facilitate cooperation between agencies that share mutual objectives. Reimbursable and shared funding may be used to leverage available research dollars and take advantage of specific expertise available in some agencies and lacking in others. Formal coordination may be required by specific legislative or administrative decisions, such as the Clinton administration's decisions relating to implementation of the Breaux Bill, which requires agencies to coordinate in assessing damages and implementing corrective mechanisms in south Louisiana's coastal wetlands.



References Cited

Representatives of Federal agencies listed herein contributed to this report. The authors are particularly grateful to the following: Robert E. Stewart, Jr., NBS; Mon S. Yee, Natural Resources Conservation Service; Doug Ryan, U.S. Forest Service; David Correll, Smithsonian Institute; Mary E. Kentula, EPA; David A. Seyler, USGS; Clive Jorgensen, Department of Energy; and Joel Wagner, National Park Service.

Cowardin, L.M., Carter, Virginia, Golet, F.C., and LaRoe, E.T., 1979,
Classification of wetlands and deepwater habitats of the United States: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Report FWS/OBS-79/31, 131 p.

Frayer, W.E., Monahan, T.J., Bowden, D.C., and Graybill, F.A., 1983,
Status and trends of wetlands and deepwater habitats in the conterminous United States, 1950's to 1970's: Fort Collins, Colorado State University, p. 32.

U.S. Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station, 1992,
National summary of ongoing wetlands research by Federal agencies: Vicksburg, Miss., Prepared by the Wetlands Research Program, 69 p.


Wetlands Research Program (CEWES-EP-W),
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station
3909 Hall Ferry Rd.,
Vicksburg, MS 39180

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