Classification of Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats of the United States

Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats

Concepts and Definitions

Marshes, swamps, and bogs have been well-known terms for centuries, but only relatively recently have attempts been made to group these landscape units under the single term "wetlands." This general term has grown out of a need to understand and describe the characteristics and values of all types of land, and to wisely and effectively manage wetland ecosystems. There is no single, correct, indisputable, ecologically sound definition for wetlands, primarily because of the diversity of wetlands and because the demarcation between dry and wet environments lies along a continuum. Because reasons or needs for defining wetlands also vary, a great proliferation of definitions has arisen. The primary objective of this classification is to impose boundaries on natural ecosystems for the purposes of inventory, evaluation, and management.

In general terms, wetlands are lands where saturation with water is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities living in the soil and on its surface. The single feature that most wetlands share is soil or substrate that is at least periodically saturated with or covered by water. The water creates severe physiological problems for all plants and animals except those that are adapted for life in water or in saturated soil.

WETLANDS are lands transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems where the water table is usually at or near the surface or the land is covered by shallow water. For purposes of this classification wetlands must have one or more of the following three attributes: (1) at least periodically, the land supports predominantly hydrophytes;1 (2) the substrate is predominantly undrained hydric soil;2 and (3) the substrate is nonsoil and is saturated with water or covered by shallow water at some time during the growing season of each year.

The term wetland includes a variety of areas that fall into one of five categories: (1) areas with hydrophytes and hydric soils, such as those commonly known as marshes, swamps, and bogs; (2) areas without hydrophytes but with hydric soils--for example, flats where drastic fluctuation in water level, wave action, turbidity, or high concentration of salts may prevent the growth of hydrophytes; (3) areas with hydrophytes but nonhydric soils, such as margins of impoundments or excavations where hydrophytes have become established but hydric soils have not yet developed; (4) areas without soils but with hydrophytes such as the seaweed-covered portion of rocky shores; and (5) wetlands without soil and without hydrophytes, such as gravel beaches or rocky shores without vegetation.

Drained hydric soils that are now incapable of supporting hydrophytes because of a change in water regime are not considered wetlands by our definition. These drained hydric soils furnish a valuable record of historic wetlands, as well as an indication of areas that may be suitable for restoration.

Wetlands as defined here include lands that are identified under other categories in some land-use classifications. For example, wetlands and farmlands are not necessarily exclusive. Many areas that we define as wetlands are farmed during dry periods, but if they are not tilled or planted to crops, a practice that destroys the natural vegetation, they will support hydrophytes.

Deepwater Habitats
DEEPWATER HABITATS are permanently flooded lands lying below the deepwater boundary of wetlands. Deepwater habitats include environments where surface water is permanent and often deep, so that water, rather than air, is the principal medium within which the dominant organisms live, whether or not they are attached to the substrate. As in wetlands, the dominant plants are hydrophytes; however, the substrates are considered nonsoil because the water is too deep to support emergent vegetation (U.S. Soil Conservation Service, Soil Survey Staff 1975).

Wetlands and deepwater habitats are defined separately because traditionally the term wetland has not included deep permanent water; however, both must be considered in an ecological approach to classification. We define five major Systems: Marine, Estuarine, Riverine, Lacustrine, and Palustrine. The first four of these include both wetland and deepwater habitats but the Palustrine includes only wetland habitats.


The upland limit of wetland is designated as (1) the boundary between land with predominantly hydrophytic cover and land with predominantly mesophytic or xerophytic cover; (2) the boundary between soil that is predominantly hydric and soil that is predominantly nonhydric; or (3) in the case of wetlands without vegetation or soil, the boundary between land that is flooded or saturated at some time during the growing season each year and land that is not.

The boundary between wetland and deepwater habitat in the Marine and Estuarine Systems coincides with the elevation of the extreme low water of spring tide; permanently flooded areas are considered deepwater habitats in these Systems. The boundary between wetland and deepwater habitat in the Riverine and Lacustrine Systems lies at a depth of 2 m (6.6 feet) below low water; however, if emergents, shrubs, or trees grow beyond this depth at any time, their deepwater edge is the boundary.

The 2-m lower limit for inland wetlands was selected because it represents the maximum depth to which emergent plants normally grow (Welch 1952; Zhadin and Gerd 1963; Sculthorpe 1967). As Daubenmire (1968:138) stated, emergents are not true aquatic plants, but are "amphibious," growing in both permanently flooded and wet, nonflooded soils. In their wetland classification for Canada, Zoltai et al. (1975) also included only areas with water less than 2 m deep.

1The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing a list of hydrophytes and other plants occurring in wetlands of the United States.
2The U.S. Soil Conservation Service is preparing a preliminary list of hydric soils for use in this classification system.
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