What One Indiana Community Can Tell Us About Wetlands Loss

New GIS map of the Cicero Creek watershed details water storage loss and flood risk, urgent need for wetlands protections

Historically, wetlands were abundant in Indiana. As communities increased in size and agriculture and timber harvesting grew as important driving forces in the state, wetlands started to disappear. Indiana now ranks fourth among states with the greatest loss of wetlands. That’s a big loss, and it’s had big consequences for wildlife and people. One of the most severe consequences of this loss is flooding.  

Mapping resources released by Audubon Great Lakes, which were conducted by Christopher B. Burke Engineering, LLC, demonstrate how flooding can impact communities across Indiana when wetlands are lost.   

These resources include a map of the Cicero Creek watershed, in Central Indiana, that was produced using geographic information system technology (GIS). It shows that the watershed, and its surrounding communities, has lost more than 95 percent of its wetlands. We now know that with this loss of wetlands, the watershed has lost approximately 2 billion gallons of water storage potential. This has contributed to severe flooding – most notable in the Town of Tipton, Indiana. 

Wetlands can hold onto an incredible amount of water – up to one million gallons per wetland acre. They’re one of nature’s best ways to prevent flooding and this map tells us that a greater loss of wetlands means increased flooding potential in towns across the Hoosier state.  

Cicero Creek Flooding in Tipton, April 2013

Images, included with the newly shared resources, illustrate the result of wetlands being drained or filled upstream from Tipton, Indiana, which was encouraged by local and state leaders. In 2013, a storm dropped millions of gallons of water on the watershed, which rushed downstream into the community.  

By looking at this map, for the first time we can see how Indiana’s landscape has dramatically changed, and how this loss is impacting communities like Tipton. Our science shows that losing water holding capacity upstream will result in uncontrollable water downstream. Preserving wetlands are essential to keep communities safe from unpredictable flooding events.  

Wetlands are the places between areas where it’s always wet and areas where it’s always dry. They may be wet year-round or only seasonally. They are often distinguished by the presence of aquatic plants, which adapt to live in saturated soil, and they come in many sizes and shapes. And they’re hugely important to birds and other wildlife. In addition to offering flood protection, wetlands provide birds with places to breed and nest, and as places of refuge to eat and rest during migration. Some of Indiana’s most vulnerable birds depend on wetlands, like the Least Bittern. 

Despite the proven important services that wetlands provide to wildlife and our communities, state lawmakers continue to pass shortsighted polices that put more wetland acres at risk of being lost. This is out of step with what Indiana residents want. Polling released by Audubon Great Lakes in 2023 found that 94 percent of Indiana voters believe state leaders should either strengthen or maintain Indiana’s current wetlands protections. And last year, the Indiana Wetlands Taskforce, a group of experts and stakeholders, issued a report that emphasized the need to do more to protect Indiana's wetlands.  

That’s at odds with legislation signed into law this year. HB 1383 rolled back protections for some of the most ecologically important wetlands in the state. We need policies that protect Indiana’s wetlands, not weaken them. Fortunately, we’ve seen some movement in the right direction. Legislation like SB 246, signed into law by Governor Holcomb and introduced by Sen. Sue Glick (R-LaGrange), will encourage landowners to protect wetlands on their property by allowing some privately owned wetlands to be given “wildland” status, which qualifies them for tax breaks. This is a good start, but more work needs to be done. 

By passing comprehensive policies that preserve and restore important wetland habitat and ensure that we have wetlands where they’re needed on our landscape to prevent flooding, we can ensure that more Indiana communities will be protected from flood risk, and that Indiana can continue to be a place where wildlife and communities can thrive.   

How you can help, right now