Ecosystem Services

Photo credit: Shawn May/USFWS

Ecosystem Services

In addition to providing habitat for a broad suite of wetland-dependent wildlife species, prairie pothole wetlands confer a variety of ecological goods and services to society. Ecosystem goods and services are the benefits to people from nature. These include food, water purification, carbon sequestration, soil stabilization, recreation, and cultural values, among others. The contribution of natural ecosystems to these benefits is rarely measured and quantified, but the value of such benefits is gradually becoming more apparent as human populations grow and demand for natural resources increases.

The most important ecosystem services that prairie potholes provide are described in the following paragraphs:

Surface water storage and flows—Prairie wetlands store water during spring runoff and following prolonged precipitation events. Slowing runoff rates reduces annual economic losses from flood damage to infrastructure such as roads, drainage systems, and housing/structures. Wetland losses in the upper reaches of the Mississippi River watershed contribute to increased flooding along the Mississippi River, hundred of miles away.

Groundwater recharge—Surface waters contained within prairie potholes interact with ground water in a variety of ways. Subsurface connectivity of water flow affects both water chemistry and a variety of biological processes. Potholes can be both areas of local recharge to groundwater and areas where groundwater discharges to the surface. They can also be important for recharging regional aquifers.

Controls for contaminants, excess nutrients, and sediments—Prairie potholes often receive substantial inputs of chemicals, excess nutrients, and sediments from surrounding agricultural or other industrial operations. In some cases wetlands are able to incorporate undesirable chemicals and breakdown these compounds into less toxic by-products and sediments. Excess nutrient inputs to wetlands are incorporated into wetland flora and fauna, thereby improving downstream water quality. Further, wetlands reduce peak river flows allowing sediments to settle out of the water column, which reduces stream turbidity.

Greenhouse gas flux—Prairie potholes have been documented to be important carbon stores. Thus, restoration of wetlands within the PPR could help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Restoring ecological goods and services through wetland restoration—While it is better to protect intact prairie potholes, the restoration of drained ones can restore some ecological functions, including peak river flow reductions and removal of nitrogen and phosphorous.

Scientists within the PPR are continuing research to better understand ecosystem services. The Resources section of this website holds examples. Learn more about ecosystem services from the Ecological Society of America factsheet.