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Water Stewardship Division

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The Role and Importance of Wetlands in Manitoba

What is a wetland?

Wetlands occur in many forms, but the common feature is that they are water bodies which go dry from time to time. The frequency of drying or flooding is one of many factors that determine what kind of wetland will result in a particular area. Manitoba has one of the highest densities of wetlands of any province in Canada.

What kinds of wetlands do we have?

Prairie potholes: Across our agricultural landscape, high densities of wetlands were left behind by retreating glaciers. These small, shallow wetlands may not have water for very long periods, but they help to control flooding and are key habitat for waterfowl and other prairie wildlife. Manitoba has lost 40% to 70% of these wetlands since the beginning of European settlement.

Riverine wetlands: Wetland areas can be found on the margins of rivers and lakes.

Delta wetlands: River mouths can create conditions that produce wetlands. The Saskatchewan River Delta, in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, is the largest freshwater river delta on the continent.

Fens and Peat Bogs: Southeastern, central and northern Manitoba have extensive wetland areas have accumulated peat deposits over time. Vegetation can include sedges and grasses, mosses, shrubs or black spruce. Peat extraction industries operate in Manitoba bog sites.

Coastal wetlands: Manitoba has large areas of salt water wetlands that are influenced by the ebb and flow of sea water along Hudson Bay. These wetlands are important to nesting and migrating waterfowl, especially Canada and snow geese.

Why are Wetlands Important?

Water quality: Wetlands have often been called the "kidneys of the landscape" because of their ability to filter surface water. If water carrying silt or other sediments flows into a wetland, much of that material will settle out before that water leaves the wetland. The vegetation growing in a wetland can also take up nutrients and contaminants that may be dissolved in the water.

Flood control: Wetlands generally are at their lowest levels in winter, which means that they have the capability to store large amounts of melting snow and runoff. Watersheds with wetlands will have less flooding than watersheds where wetlands have been drained. Certain wetlands can also recharge groundwater.

Habitat for fish and wildlife: Acre for acre, wetland habitats are among the most productive natural areas in the landscape. That productivity results in habitat for a wide range of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates and plants.

A vast array of fish and wildlife depend on wetlands. Many fish species need wetlands for spawning habitat and nursery areas for young fish. More generally, the water quality improvement functions of wetlands helps to ensure that surface water quality in lakes and rivers is sufficient to maintain aquatic species.

Hundreds of species of birds, especially waterfowl and other water birds, depend on wetlands for at least part of their life cycles. Prairie potholes are especially important to continental waterfowl populations.

Agriculture: Wetlands can be an important water source for agricultural industry, especially livestock producers. Wetlands are also important forage sources for cattle, especially in drought years.

Economic Development: Hunting and trapping activities associated with wetlands can be locally-important generators of economic activity, especially in rural and remote areas. Ecotourism opportunities have been developed around wetland areas such as Oak Hammock marsh.

Climate Change: Many wetlands are recognized as important carbon "sinks", which is a key element of controlling emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Useful links:

  • www.mhhc.mb.ca. Website of The Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation includes discussion of riparian program opportunities
  • www.wetkit.net/agriculture WetKit for Agriculture: tools for wetland and riparian management