Wetlands: nature's water filters, sponges & nurseries

Dense, green vegetation. Low grow herbaceous plants are in the foreground with taller evergreen trees in the background.

Skunk cabbage, a wetland indicator plant, emerges in the spring along a trail in a city park in Olympia.

More likely than not, there is a wetland near where you live, work, or play. According to a 1990 report to Congress, wetlands cover approximately 938,000 acres in Washington, about 2 percent of the state's total land area.Since the 1780s, Washington has lost 31 percent of its wetland areas, from 1.35 million acres to 938,000 acres. Wetlands are critical to the overall health of watersheds.

We are responsible for protecting, restoring, and managing the state's remaining wetland resources because of their key role in watershed health.

Wetland functions include many that are important to people

  • Erosion control
  • Flood control
  • Groundwater recharge
  • Recreation
  • Research and education
  • Regional economic vitality
  • Water filtration and purification
  • Wildlife habitat

The functions performed by an individual wetland depend on its location, surrounding topography, subsurface geology, amount and duration of water, and the types of plants present. While each wetland may not perform all functions, the cumulative value of all wetlands in a watershed makes each important.

Our role protecting, restoring & managing wetlands

The state's Water Pollution Control Act and the Shoreline Management Act, give us the authority to regulate wetlands. We also use the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process to identify potential wetland-related concerns early in the permitting process. Our wetland staff review applications for projects that have the potential to affect wetlands and other state waters.

We provide technical assistance to local governments under the Growth Management Act. This includes assistance in developing comprehensive plan policies and development regulations, and implementing local wetland regulations.

Beyond regulation

Regulations are only one tool to protect wetlands. There are many non-regulatory opportunities to conserve wetland resources. Comprehensive wetlands protection includes voluntary wetland stewardship actions taken by landowners and local communities. These actively preserve, restore, and enhance existing wetlands.

We also work in partnership with local and tribal governments, land trusts, and other state and federal agencies to acquire, restore, and enhance wetlands through the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program.

Local governments, consultants, developers and landowners can find wetland resources and guidance documents by using the related links below. If you have a specific question, contact our wetland staff (contacts are organized by region and subject).