The Importance of the Wet Meadow

Dr. Douglas Wilcox explains the importance of water level fluctuation changes for the maintenance of wet meadows and a healthy St. Lawrence River ecosystem. Implementation of Plan 2014 will allow for more natural variability in water levels.

St. Lawrence River| Lizzy Grater

Guest post by Dr. Douglas Wilcox is a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series spotlighting the St. Lawrence River.

With 30 years in federal service, more recently with the U.S. Geological Survey, and the last eight years at Brockport, I’ve studied and worked on Great Lakes wetlands my entire career. The underlying theme in all of my research findings has been that hydrology (lake level) is an overriding force that controls wetland function. Needless to say, I thoroughly understand the ways that lake-level fluctuations affect Great Lakes wetlands and how water-level regulation affects the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.

Lake Ontario Levels
Lake Ontario Levels


During that professional career, my research team developed a 4,700-year paleo record of lake levels in lakes Michigan-Huron that shows regular patterns in fluctuations, with high/low cycles roughly every 32 years and longer-term cycles of about 160 years. This variability has shaped the evolution of the vital native species that grace Great Lakes wetlands, including Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Put simply, variability matters.

So, how do these fluctuations affect wetlands and impact wildlife?

Plants Water Levels
Plants Water Levels


If you look at the horizontal line A in the figure above, you will see the highest high Lake Ontario experiences. Anywhere above that line never gets flooded.

Horizontal line C in this figure shows the lowest low Lake Ontario will experience. Anything below that line always has standing water on it.

The broad area between the lines is the action zone. It gets flooded sometimes and dewatered other times. When water levels rise and fall throughout Lake Ontario’s natural cadence, the system remains in balance.

During periods when high lake levels are naturally higher, invasive plants like cattails are flooded out, as are invading trees and shrubs from the upland.

During periods when lake levels are naturally lower, sediments and the seed bank are exposed, allowing native species that have deposited their seeds a chance to grow. The sediments also become too dry to support invading cattails, providing a competitive advantage to wet meadow plants that can tolerate low soil moisture.

This has been happening for thousands of years, and the biological communities, both plant and animal, have evolved to depend on those conditions.

So, what’s the problem?

The damaging and unnatural water-level regulation plan instituted after the Moses Saunders Dam was built has thrown a wrench in this natural cadence. This plan attempts to keep year-to-year water-level patterns static, which is the absolute worst thing you could ever do to a Great Lakes wetland. The impacts are striking:

  • In some areas, once sandy beaches have been replaced with shoreline armoring to protect property from high lake levels, while the shoreline never receives the periodic lows needed to replenish the beach. Shoreline processes are disrupted, and barrier beaches that protect some of the wetlands lose the sand they need.
  • Areas at higher elevations in wetlands that are covered by wet meadows, a major component of coastal wetlands, have been greatly reduced because they have lost the competitive advantage provided by periodic low lake levels during the summer growing season.
  • Cattails, which cannot tolerate low lake levels, invaded the wetlands and replaced the wet meadows. Without natural variation in water levels, invasive cattails have created monocultures where vibrant ecosystems once stood.
  • Northern pike adults feed in these wetlands. The adults spawn in the flooded wet meadow; the young live and grow up in wetlands. When water levels are kept low over the winter and early spring, there is no water for the northern pike to access wetlands and spawn. Consequently, northern pike populations have been reduced by 70% under the current water-level regulation plan.
  • Muskrats, an important species that eats cattails and uses them to build houses, are now rare in Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River wetlands because their houses are left high and dry in the winter when the current water-level regulation plan draws winter lake levels down too low. When muskrats cannot fulfill their natural role in eating and controlling cattails, there is a lot of reduction in fish and wildlife habitat.

This is why the new water-level regulation plan, Plan 2014, is so important.

Plan 2014 will ensure that water levels are managed in a scientifically-defensible manner. Plan 2014 includes triggers that change to reflect the season. In the summer, the triggers reflect high lake levels that could damage property; in the spring and fall, the triggers reflect low lake levels that could impact boating and other activities. If lake and river start to approach these seasonally-adjusted trigger levels, the International Joint Commission’s Board of Control will act to regulate water levels accordingly and protect shoreline-property and other interests before the triggers are reached.

More importantly, during years with low water supplies to the Lake Ontario watershed, Plan 2014 will allow lake levels to be lower in the summer rather than keeping them unnaturally high, thus benefitting wet meadows rather than cattails. During years with adequate water supplies, Plan 2014 will allow winter and spring lake levels to remain slightly higher to support fish and muskrat populations. Plan 2014 seeks to reestablish more natural environmental conditions while continuing to provide support for other interests and should be supported by everyone.

Dr. Douglas A. Wilcox is the Empire Innovation Professor of Wetland Science at SUNY—The College at Brockport. Dr. Wilcox is an expert in wetland ecology, with an emphasis on the influence of hydrology, climate change, and human disturbance on wetland plant communities.

8 responses to “The Importance of the Wet Meadow

  1. My pre-MS dam home on the south shore of Lake Ontario has lost a foot of land per year post artificial damming. No more beach. All 100 plus year old trees have fallen into the lake. $56,000 spent trying to shore up what is left of the yard is sliding into the foul lake filled with debris and mud and sewage. How does that help ecology? It only benefits shipping and hydro plants.

  2. This was written in 2016, I would like to hear from this well educated,experienced author now. I wonder if he is aware of what a failure 2014 is, habitat lost. Dead or homeless muskrates. Islands of marshes floating in the lakes and rivers, and the trees,beautiful old big trees lost into the water. Your plan has caused damage to the environment,economy and to people . Admit you are wrong,admit failure, get out of your classroom and see what damage this has caused and use your education to fix it….it will never happen in your lifetime….

  3. Plan 2014 sounds great on paper. But it is not being carried out in any way shape or form described above. People are loosing everything they have ever worked for. Beaches are completely gone, wild life is being drivin away, boating season is ruined. Dont was it any more time trying to make this work. It is nothing short of a complete disaster.

  4. It’s hard not to read this and believe that plan 2014 is essential.

    But there is more to the story.

    2014 has highs during the spring months of April thru May above 247.3 feet 400% more often than Plan 1988DD. The LOSLR study Chief Wetland scientist stated that the highs in Plan 58DD were sufficient for the wetlands and that the lows during the mid-summer were what was missing.

    The Minority Report speaks to the “Science” (at the link below). The National Research Council said the science was insufficient to inform policy. These devastating impacts are not the unfortunate consequences of living on the water. They are the result of a broader agenda, and they are crushing families, the only stakeholders without a powerful and well funded lobby group.

  5. Wake up people, this was NEVER about the environment or the health of the lake. It IS about the shipping industry for 20 or more years fighting for higher water to load ships with more cargo and the NYPA that wants high water for longer and more power profit. Didn’t you even notice that after all those years of not being able to get the higher water that that’s when they enlisted and convinced everyone that MAYBE if we call it an environmental issue, we can get the high water? Didn’t you notice that the IJC’s three studied plans were dumped in favor of the one for Shipping that was NEVER studied and was passed behind closed doors (which is against the 1909 treaty? Didn’t you notice that our U.S. Secretary of transportation who oversees the Maritime shipping industry is married to our Senate Leader Mitch McConnell who ultimately pushed Plan 2014 thru? Didn’t you know she has Family in both the USA and China that owns huge shipping companies in both countries and that in itself is a major conflict of interest, but she wanted this pushed thru for her family and got it………..You people, just like the rest of us have been conned by the Government and The flawed and failed Plan 2014 was Never about the environment, but you fell for it……………Look around, its destroying the environment, not helping it. The wetlands everywhere in the world are being restored by crews that refresh channels and ponds within the wetlands and that works much quicker and creates jobs……instead of destroying hundreds of million of dollars worth of damage each year and causing many the jobs and business. What is wrong with you people, wake up, look around……………’ve been being lied to and you cant seem to even see it.

  6. Someone please forward to Gov. Cuomo, Bob Antonacci and any others who attended yesterday’s Mtg. on this subject. Also forward to Bob Lonsberry, WSYR talk radio show announcer who, living in the Rochester area is drinking their Kool-Aid and parroting the anti 2014 plan “we had the other plan for 47 years and no floods; we’ve had plan 2014 for three years and two major floods” It must be the plan’s fault.
    Not mentioned or discussed was the author’s reference to the construction of the Moses Saunders damn which was supposed to bring very low electrical rates to upstate NY. 50 years later we have some of the highest utility rates in the U.S. and the Governor had to bail out Alcoa which moved here because of those “low rates”.

  7. I agree with what you say about the benefits of high water/flooding.
    I have read about this years ago.
    I have been on the Lake of Isles since 1955, pre-Seaway days. I have seen the water levels micro-managed to the detriment of fish populations, cattail encroachment and weeds.
    Just last week 3 of us took a kayak paddle up Barnette Marsh…it has opened up to what I remember back in 1962 or so. I see French Creed Marsh is experiencing the same thing.
    Much good will come of this.
    I am sad people are suffering so much damage but it comes with living on the water.
    Thank you again for this explanation.

  8. So we are supposed to watch our
    Lands erode away. While at the same time keep
    Paying property taxes on what we are losing. These people making these ridiculous decisions have no skin in the game. You people need to realize NY has snow and wet springs and you must figure accordingly. So far in Three years time you have failed miserably. Fix this damn problem

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