Colorado’s wetlands range from alpine wet meadows at the base of Mount Elbert to marshes along the Arikaree River at the Kansas border. Though they cover only 2% of the state, wetlands and riparian areas are by far the most ecologically and economically significant ecosystem in Colorado.
The Colorado Wetland Information Center (CWIC) is a resource developed by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program through funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Information within the CWIC is organized to answer five core questions:
These questions also form the backbone of CNHP’s Wetland Program Plan, a five-year strategic plan for our work on wetlands.
In addition, the CWIC also includes:
The word wetland encompasses many different habitats, but they all share a suite of common characteristics. Most importantly, wetlands are lands influenced by water, resulting in unique plants and soils. Colorado wetlands include places such as marshes, wet meadows, riparian areas, playas, seep or springs, fens, mires, inter-dunal swales, hanging gardens, and alkaline or mineral flats.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency define wetlands for permitting wetland impacts under Section 404 of the Federal Clean Water Act. According to this federal regulatory definition, wetlands are:
To meet the federal regulatory definition, a wetland must have all three of the following criteria: (1) wetland plants; (2) wetland hydrology; and (3) hydric soils.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defines wetlands from an ecological point of view as:
According to this definition, wetlands must have one or more of the following attributes: (1) at least periodically, the land supports predominantly hydrophytes (wetland plants); (2) the substrate is predominantly un-drained hydric soil; and/or (3) the substrate is non-soil and is saturated with water or covered by shallow water at some time during the growing season of each year.
This definition recognizes that some areas display many of the attributes of wetlands without exhibiting all three characteristics required by the regulatory definition. For example, riparian areas, which often do not meet all three criteria, perform many of the same functions as other wetland types, including maintenance of water quality, storage of floodwaters and enhancement of biodiversity, especially in the western United States. The USFWS definition is often used for wetland mapping and for habitat management.
Wetlands provide many functions. These include groundwater recharge, nutrient cycling, primary production, carbon sequestration and export, sediment transport, and channel stabilization. One of the most important functions is the role of wetlands in providing clean water. Wetland vegetation acts as a filter or sponge for water and sediment that may contain heavy metals, pesticides or fertilizers. Wetland vegetation also provides a buffer for flood zones, especially along larger rivers that flow through Colorado’s cities and town. In addition, wetlands play a key role in many of the recreational activities Colorado is best known for, including hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, and rafting.
Wetlands are also instrumental in providing quality wildlife habitat. In many areas of the Intermountain West, more than 80% of wildlife species depend on wetland and riparian areas at some point in their lives. In arid climates like Colorado, where evaporation often exceeds precipitation, wetlands are an irreplaceable habitat for vast numbers of ducks, shorebirds, wading birds, cranes and raptors that either breed or stop over in wetlands.
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