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Water: Best Management Practices

Stormwater Wetland

Minimum Measure: Post-Construction Stormwater Management in New Development and Redevelopment

Subcategory: Retention/Detention



Stormwater wetlands (a.k.a. constructed wetlands) are structural practices similar to wet ponds (see Wet Ponds fact sheet) that incorporate wetland plants into the design. As stormwater runoff flows through the wetland, pollutant removal is achieved through settling and biological uptake within the practice. Wetlands are among the most effective stormwater practices in terms of pollutant removal and they also offer aesthetic and habitat value. Although natural wetlands can sometimes be used to treat stormwater runoff that has been properly pretreated, stormwater wetlands are fundamentally different from natural wetland systems. Stormwater wetlands are designed specifically for the purpose of treating stormwater runoff, and typically have less biodiversity than natural wetlands in terms of both plant and animal life. Several design variations of the stormwater wetland exist, each design differing in the relative amounts of shallow and deep water, and dry storage above the wetland.

A distinction should be made between using a constructed wetland for stormwater management and diverting stormwater into a natural wetland. The latter practice is not recommended because altering the hydrology of the existing wetland with additional stormwater can degrade the resource and result in plant die-off and the destruction of wildlife habitat. In all circumstances, natural wetlands should be protected from the adverse effects of development, including impacts from increased stormwater runoff. This is especially important because natural wetlands provide stormwater and flood control benefits on a regional scale.


Constructed wetlands are widely applicable stormwater management practices. While they have limited applicability in highly urbanized settings and in arid climates, wetlands have few other restrictions.

Regional Applicability

Stormwater wetlands can be applied in most regions of the United States, with the exception of arid climates. In arid and semi-arid climates, it is difficult to design any stormwater practice that has a permanent pool. Because stormwater wetlands are shallow, a large portion is subject to evaporation relative to the volume of the practice. This makes maintaining the permanent pool in wetlands more challenging and important than maintaining the pool of a wet pond (see Wet Ponds fact sheet).

Ultra-Urban Areas

Ultra-urban areas are densely developed urban areas in which little pervious surface exists. It is difficult to use stormwater wetlands in the ultra-urban environment because of the land area each wetland consumes. They can, however, be used in an ultra-urban environment if a relatively large area is available downstream of the site.

Stormwater Hot Spots

Stormwater hot spots are areas where land use or activities generate highly contaminated runoff, with concentrations of pollutants in excess of those typically found in stormwater. A typical example is a gas station. Wetlands can accept runoff from stormwater hot spots, but need significant separation from ground water if they will be used for this purpose. Caution also needs to be exercised, if these practices are designed to encourage wildlife use, to ensure that pollutants in stormwater runoff do not work their way through the food chain of organisms living in or near the wetland.

Stormwater Retrofit

A stormwater retrofit is a stormwater management practice (usually structural) put into place after development has occurred, to improve water quality, protect downstream channels, reduce flooding, or meet other specific objectives. When retrofitting an entire watershed, stormwater wetlands have the advantage of providing both educational and habitat value. One disadvantage to wetlands is the difficulty of storing large amounts of runoff without consuming a large amount of land. It is also possible to incorporate wetland elements into existing practices, such as wetland plantings (see Wet Ponds and Dry Detention Ponds fact sheets).

Cold Water (Trout) Streams

Wetlands could pose a risk to cold water systems because of their potential for stream warming. When water remains in the permanent pool, it is heated by the sun. A study in Prince George's County, Maryland, investigated the thermal impacts of a wide range of stormwater management practices (Galli, 1990). In this study, only one wetland was investigated, which was an extended detention wetland (see Design Variations). The practice increased the average temperature of stormwater runoff that flowed through the practice by about 3°F. As a result, wetlands can release water that is warmer than stream temperatures.

Siting and Design Considerations

In addition to the broad applicability concerns described above, designers need to consider conditions at the site level. In addition, they need to incorporate design features to improve the longevity and performance of the practice, while minimizing the maintenance burden.

Siting Considerations

In addition to the restrictions and modifications to adapting stormwater wetlands to different regions and land uses, designers need to ensure that this management practice is feasible at the site in question. The following section provides basic guidelines for siting wetlands.

Drainage Area

Wetlands need sufficient drainage area to maintain the permanent pool. In humid regions, this is typically about 25 acres, but a greater area may be needed in regions with less rainfall.


Wetlands can be used on sites with an upstream slope of up to about 15 percent. The local slope should be relatively shallow, however. While there is no minimum slope requirement, there does need to be enough elevation drop from the inlet to the outlet to ensure that hydraulic conveyance by gravity is feasible (generally about 3 to 5 feet).


Wetlands can be used in almost all soils and geology, with minor design adjustments for regions of karst (i.e. limestone) topography (see Design Considerations).

Ground Water

Unless they receive hot spot runoff, wetlands can often intersect the ground water table. Some research suggests that pollutant removal is reduced when ground water contributes substantially to the pool volume (Schueler, 1997b). It is assumed that wetlands would have a similar response.

Design Considerations

Specific designs may vary considerably, depending on site constraints or preferences of the designer or community. There are some features, however, that should be incorporated into most wetland designs. These design features can be divided into five basic categories: pretreatment, treatment, conveyance, maintenance reduction, and landscaping.


Pretreatment incorporates design features that help to settle out coarse sediment particles. By removing these particles from runoff before they reach the large permanent pool, the maintenance burden of the pond is reduced. In wetlands, pretreatment is achieved with a sediment forebay. A sediment forebay is a small pool (typically about 10 percent of the volume of the permanent pool). Coarse particles remain trapped in the forebay, and maintenance is performed on this smaller pool, eliminating the need to dredge the entire pond.


Treatment design features help enhance the ability of a stormwater management practice to remove pollutants. The purpose of most of these features is to decrease the rate of stormwater movement through the wetland. Some typical design features include

  • The surface area of wetlands should be at least 1 percent of the drainage area to the practice.        
  • Wetlands should have a length-to-width ratio of at least 1.5:1. Making the wetland longer than it is wide helps prevent "short circuiting" of the practice.        
  • Effective wetland design displays "complex microtopography." In other words, wetlands should include zones of both very shallow (<6 inches) and moderately shallow (<18 inches) water, using underwater earth berms to create the zones. This design will provide a longer flow path through the wetland to encourage settling, and it provides two depth zones to encourage plant diversity.


Conveyance of stormwater runoff into and through a stormwater management practice is a critical component of any practice. Stormwater should be conveyed to and from practices safely and to minimize erosion potential. The outfall of wetlands should always be stabilized to prevent scour. In addition, dependent upon local conditions, an emergency spillway might need to be provided to safely convey large flood events. To help mitigate warming at the outlet channel, designers should provide shade around the channel at the wetland outlet.

Maintenance Reduction      

In addition to regular maintenance activities needed to maintain the function of stormwater practices, some design features can be incorporated to ease the maintenance burden of each practice. In wetlands, maintenance reduction features include techniques to reduce the amount of maintenance needed, as well as techniques to make regular maintenance activities easier.

One potential maintenance concern in wetlands is clogging of the outlet. Wetlands should be designed with a nonclogging outlet such as a reverse-slope pipe or a weir outlet with a trash rack. A reverse-slope pipe draws from below the permanent pool extending in a reverse angle up to the riser and establishes the water elevation of the permanent pool. Because these outlets draw water from below the level of the permanent pool, they are less likely to be clogged by floating debris. Another general rule is that no orifice should be less than 3 inches in diameter. Smaller orifices are generally more susceptible to clogging, without specific design considerations to reduce this problem. Another feature that can help reduce the potential for clogging of the outlet is to incorporate a small pool, or "micropool" at the outlet.

Design features are also incorporated to ease maintenance of both the forebay and the main pool of wetlands. Wetlands should be designed with a maintenance access to the forebay to ease this relatively routine (5- to 7-year) maintenance activity. In addition, the permanent pool should have a drain to draw down the water for the more infrequent dredging of the main cell of the wetland.


Landscaping of wetlands can make them an asset to a community and can also enhance the pollutant removal of the practice. In wetland systems, landscaping is an integral part of the design. To ensure the establishment and survival of wetland plants, a landscaping plan should provide detailed information about the plants selected, when they will be planted, and a strategy for maintaining them. The plan should detail wetland plants, as well as vegetation to be established adjacent to the wetland. Native plants should be used if possible.

A variety of techniques can be used to establish wetland plants. The most effective techniques are the use of nursery stock as dormant rhizomes, live potted plants, and bare rootstock. A "wetland mulch," soil from a natural wetland or a designed "wetland mix," can be used to supplement wetland plantings or alone to establish wetland vegetation. Wetland mulch carries with it the seed bank from the original wetland, and can help to enhance diversity in the wetland. The least expensive option to establish wetlands is to allow the wetland to colonize itself. One disadvantage to this last technique is that invasive species such as cattails or Phragmites (common reed) may dominate the wetland.

When developing a plan for wetland planting, care needs to be taken to ensure that plants are established in the proper depth and within the planting season. This season varies regionally, and is generally between 2 and 3 months long in the spring to early summer. Plant lists are available for various regions of the United States through wetland nurseries, extension services, and conservation districts.

Design Variations

There are several variations of the wetland design. The designs are characterized by the volume of the wetland in deep pool, high marsh, and low marsh, and whether the design allows for detention of small storms above the wetland surface. Other design variations help to make wetland designs practical in cold climates.

Shallow Marsh

In the shallow marsh design, most of the wetland volume is in the relatively shallow high marsh or low marsh depths. The only deep portions of the shallow wetland design are the forebay at the inlet to the wetland and the micropool at the outlet. One disadvantage to this design is that, since the pool is very shallow, a large amount of land is typically needed to store the water quality volume (i.e., the volume of runoff to be treated in the wetland).

Extended Detention Wetland

This design is the same as the shallow marsh, with additional storage above the surface of the marsh. Stormwater is temporarily ponded above the surface in the extended detention zone for between 12 and 24 hours. This design can treat a greater volume of stormwater in a smaller space than the shallow wetland design. In the extended detention wetland option, plants that can tolerate wet and dry periods should be specified in the extended detention zone.

Pond/Wetland System

The pond/wetland system combines the wet pond (see Wet Ponds fact sheet) design with a shallow marsh. Stormwater runoff flows through the wet pond and into the shallow marsh. Like the extended detention wetland, this design requires less surface area than the shallow marsh because some of the volume of the practice is in the relatively deep (i.e., 6-8 feet) pond.

Pocket Wetland

This design is very similar to the pocket pond (see Wet Ponds fact sheet). In this design, the bottom of the wetland intersects the ground water, which helps to maintain the permanent pool. Some evidence suggests that ground water flows may reduce the overall effectiveness of stormwater management practices (Schueler, 1997b). This option may be used when there is not significant drainage area to maintain a permanent pool.

Gravel-Based Wetlands      

In this design, runoff flows through a rock filter with wetland plants at the surface. Pollutants are removed through biological activity on the surface of the rocks and pollutant uptake by the plants. This practice is fundamentally different from other wetland designs because, while most wetland designs behave like wet ponds with differences in grading and landscaping, gravel-based wetlands are more similar to filtering systems.

Regional Variations

Cold Climates

Cold climates present many challenges to designers of wetlands. During the spring snowmelt, a large volume of water runs off in a short time, carrying a relatively high pollutant load. In addition, cold winter temperatures may cause freezing of the permanent pool or freezing at inlets and outlets. Finally, high salt concentrations in runoff resulting from road salting, as well as sediment loads from road sanding, may impact wetland vegetation.

One of the greatest challenges of stormwater wetlands, particularly shallow marshes, is that much of the practice is very shallow. Therefore, much of the volume in the wetland can be lost as the surface of the practice freezes. One study found that the performance of a wetland system was diminished during the spring snowmelt because the outlet and surface of the wetland had frozen. Sediment and pollutants in snowmelt and rainfall events "skated" over the surface of the wetland, depositing at the outlet of the wetland. When the ice melted, this sediment was washed away by storm events (Oberts, 1994). Several design features can help minimize this problem, including:

  • "On-line" designs allowing flow to move continuously can help prevent outlets from freezing.        
  • Wetlands should be designed with multiple cells, with a berm or weir separating each cell. This modification will help to retain storage for treatment above the ice layer during the winter season.        
  • Outlets that are resistant to freezing should be used. Some examples include weirs or pipes with large diameters.

The salt and sand used to remove ice from roads and parking lots may also create a challenge to designing wetlands in cold climates. When wetlands drain highway runoff, or parking lots, salt-tolerant vegetation, such as pickle weed or cord grass should be used. (Contact a local nursery or extension agency for more information in your region). In addition, designers should consider using a large forebay to capture the sediment from road sanding.

Karst Topography

In karst (i.e., limestone) topography, wetlands should be designed with an impermeable liner to prevent ground water contamination or sinkhole formation, and to help maintain the permanent pool.


Some features of stormwater wetlands that may make the design challenging include the following:

  • Each wetland consumes a relatively large amount of space, making it an impractical option on some sites.       
  • Improperly designed wetlands might become a breeding area for mosquitoes if improperly designed.        
  • Wetlands require careful design and planning to ensure that wetland plants are sustained after the practice is in place.        
  • It is possible that stormwater wetlands may release nutrients during the nongrowing season.        
  • Designers need to ensure that wetlands do not negatively impact natural wetlands or forest during the design phase.        
Maintenance Considerations

In addition to incorporating features into the wetland design to minimize maintenance, some regular maintenance and inspection practices are needed. Table 1 outlines these practices.

Table 1. Regular maintenance activities for wetlands (Source: Adapted from WMI, 1997, and CWP, 1998)        



  • Replace wetland vegetation to maintain at least 50% surface area coverage in wetland plants after the second growing season.                 


  • Inspect for invasive vegetation and remove where possible.     

Semi-annual inspection

  • Inspect for damage to the embankment and               inlet/outlet structures. Repair as necessary.              
  • Note signs of hydrocarbon build-up, and deal with appropriately.              
  • Monitor for sediment accumulation in the               facility and forebay.              
  • Examine to ensure that inlet and outlet devices are free of debris and are operational.           

Annual inspection

  • Repair undercut or eroded areas.   

As needed maintenance 

  • Clean and remove debris from inlet and outlet structures.              
  • Mow side slopes. 

Frequent (3-4 times/year)             maintenance 

  • Supplement wetland plants if a significant portion have not established (at least 50% of the surface area).        
  • Harvest wetland plants that have been "choked out" by sediment build-up.         

Annual maintenance
(if needed)

  • Remove sediment from the forebay.   

5- to 7-year maintenance   

  • Monitor sediment accumulations, and remove               sediment when the pool volume has become reduced significantly, plants are "choked" with sediment, or the wetland becomes eutrophic.                       

20- to 50-year         maintenance   


Structural stormwater management practices can be used to achieve four broad resource protection goals. These include flood control, channel protection, ground water recharge, and pollutant removal. Wetlands can provide flood control, channel protection, and pollutant removal.

Flood Control

One objective of stormwater management practices can be to reduce the flood hazard associated with large storm events by reducing the peak flow associated with these storms. Wetlands can easily be designed for flood control by providing flood storage above the level of the permanent pool.

Channel Protection

When used for channel protection, wetlands have traditionally controlled the 2-year storm. It appears that this control has been relatively ineffective, and research suggests that control of a smaller storm may be more appropriate (MacRae, 1996).

Ground Water Recharge

Wetlands cannot provide ground water recharge. The build-up of debris at the bottom of the wetland prevents the movement of water into the subsoil.

Pollutant Removal

Wetlands are among the most effective stormwater management practices at removing stormwater pollutants. A wide range of research is available to estimate the effectiveness of wetlands. Wetlands have high pollutant removal rates, and are articularly effective at removing nitrate and bacteria. Table 2 provides pollutant removal data derived from the Center for Watershed Protections's National Pollutant Removal Database for Stormwater Treatment Practices (Winer, 2000).

Table 2. Typical Pollutant Removal Rates of Wetlands (%) (Winer, 2000)


Stormwater Treatment Practice Design Variation

Shallow Marsh

ED Wetland1

Pond/Wetland System

Submerged Gravel Wetland1































1Data based on fewer than five data points

The effectiveness of wetlands varies considerably, but many believe that proper design and maintenance help to improve their performance. The siting and design criteria presented in this sheet reflect the best current information and experience to improve the performance of wetlands. A joint project of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the U.S. EPA Office of Water may help to isolate specific design features that can improve performance. The National Stormwater Best Management Practice (BMP) database is a compilation of stormwater practices which includes both design information and performance data for various practices. As the database expands, inferences about the extent to which specific design criteria influence pollutant removal may be made. More information on this database is available on the BMP database Exit EPA Site.

Cost Considerations

Wetlands are relatively inexpensive stormwater practices. Construction cost data for wetlands are rare, but one simplifying assumption is that they are typically about 25 percent more expensive than stormwater ponds of an equivalent volume. Using this assumption, an equation developed by Brown and Schueler (1997) to estimate the cost of wet ponds can be modified to estimate the cost of stormwater wetlands using the equation:

C = 30.6V0.705


C = Construction, design, and permitting cost;

V = Wetland volume needed to control the 10-year storm (ft3).

Using this equation, typical construction costs are the following:

$ 57,100 for a 1 acre-foot facility

$ 289,000 for a 10 acre-foot facility

$ 1,470,000 for a 100 acre-foot facility

Wetlands consume about 3 to 5 percent of the land that drains to them, which is relatively high compared with other stormwater management practices.

For wetlands, the annual cost of routine maintenance is typically estimated at about 3 percent to 5 percent of the construction cost. Alternatively, a community can estimate the cost of the maintenance activities outlined in the maintenance section. Wetlands are long-lived facilities (typically longer than 20 years). Thus, the initial investment into these systems may be spread over a relatively long time period.

Although no studies are available on wetlands in particular, there is some evidence to suggest that wet ponds may provide an economic benefit by increasing property values. The results of one study suggest that "pond frontage" property can increase the selling price of new properties by about 10 percent (USEPA, 1995). Another study reported that the perceived value (i.e., the value estimated by residents of a community) of homes was increased by about 15 to 25 percent when located near a wet pond (Emmerling-Dinovo, 1995). It is anticipated that well-designed wetlands, which incorporate additional aesthetic features, would have the same benefit.


Brown, W., and T. Schueler. 1997. The Economics of Stormwater BMPs in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Prepared for Chesapeake Research Consortium, Edgewater, MD by Center for Watershed Protection, Ellicott City, MD.

Emmerling-Dinovo, C. 1995. Stormwater Detention Basins and Residential Locational Decisions. Water Resources Bulletin, 31(3):515-521.

Galli, F. 1990. Thermal Impacts Associated with Urbanization and Stormwater Best Management Practices. Prepared for Maryland Department of the Environment, Baltimore, MD, by Metropolitan Council of Governments, Washington, DC.

MacRae, C. 1996. Experience from morphological research on canadian streams: Is control of the two-year frequency runoff event the best basis for stream channel protection? In Effects of Watershed Development and Management on Aquatic Ecosystems. American Society of Civil Engineers, Snowbird, UT.

Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). 2000.  Maryland Stormwater Design Manual. [http://www.mde.state.md.us/environment/wma/stormwatermanual Exit EPA Site].  Accessed November 10, 2005.

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