Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Want to learn more about prior appropriation?

Hopefully you were able to stick it out to the end of my last blog post.  If you were, and if water rights and prior appropriation are new to you, I bet you want to learn more.  Some historians have done an exception job delving into the history of the West to explain why we divide water the way we do and the impacts of prior appropriation.  I highly recommend the books below, but be prepared for some heartburn. 
Glen Canyon Dam: I had to visit this after reading Cadillac Desert. You can get a tour down inside the dam, which is straight up amazing. 
The best water rights books to date:

  • Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water - Marc Reisner - 1993.  This book covers the characters and the lasting structures and agencies they built that are still powerful forces on the landscape. Even better, there's a Cadillac Desert documentary with powerful interviews from David Brower, Floyd Dominy, and bad ass goddess of the desert Katie Lee (you may cry, it's ok).  
  • Secret Knowledge of Water: The Essence of the American Desert - Craig Childs - 2000.  More of a naturalist's book than strict history, Childs takes you across the desert, explaining how to find water and the amazing ways that water has shaped the landscape.  There's a chapter about flash floods that is seared into my brain.  
  • Where the Water Flows: Life and Death Along the Colorado River - David Owens - 2017.  A story about the most interesting river in the world - the Colorado River.  You get to go on a journey from the start of the river in the Colorado Rockies to the end.  Each chapter along the way dives into a piece of the complexity surrounding the Colorado, which has been called the American Nile (because it's that's important).  I really like the chapter on water conservation because it explains all the ways people and the environment have adapted to prior appropriation, then shows the cascading consequences of making changes that seem good.  
  • Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness - Edward Abbey - 1968.  OK, not about water per se, but a story about living in the desert.  While you're familiarizing yourself with the desert we live in, this is a must read. 

The Bear River is my second favorite river (after the Colorado). I spent 3 years studying how all the water users, especially the wetland water users, are linked to one another through sharing the river. 
If you'd like a slightly drier, academic approach focused on a local watershed and wetlands, you can check out some of my publications. 

  • Keeping wetlands wet in the Western United States: adaptations to drought in human-natural systems.  Yeah, I jumped on the subtitle bandwagon. Everything needs water rights in the West, even ecosystems.  Wetland managers in the Bear River watershed have figured out ways to get water rights and then use that water in a way that meets the requirements of prior appropriation and maintains habitat for migratory birds.  The cool part about it (other than the birds) is that each of the three refuges we looked at chose a slightly different way of obtaining water rights and water shares that was most appropriate for where they are located.  Blog post about it here.  
  • Adaptive management in an uncertain and changing environment.  We took a deep dive into water rights, water management, and the people behind Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.  Water is constantly on the brains of wetland managers here: how much water is available this month, what new proposals are threatening that water, where on the 70,000 acre refuge is that water most needed?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Prior Appropriation: the exciting rules we use to divide up water (!!!)

Subtitle: The most interesting subject in the world

Prior Appropriation Water Law is the boring term for the most interesting subject: the rules for how we split up the water in our rivers so it can be used to grow food and people. The rules say the first person to claim water always gets water, and the people who were late to the game are out of luck when supplies are short. Westerners decided on these rules in the 1800’s, but they still affect your daily life: anyone using any water needs a water right.

This scene brought to you by a water right to 125.22 cubic feet per second of water from the Jordan River with an 1862 priority for irrigation.
Water law is a tricky subject.  If you can listen past ‘prior appropriation,’ you’ll be quickly overwhelmed by the injustice of it all and a growing sense of confusion caused by all the exceptions to initially simple rules.  My entire academic career has been driven by my need to talk to people about water rights and birds, because even birds need water rights.  After 13 years of water rights stuff, I still cycle between thinking it’s unfair and really cool. 
Take a look at the map below.  What is the most visible difference between the western (left) half and the eastern (right) half of the country? 

You’re right!  The West is more brown than green.  The differences in color are caused by how much water each half has.  The West gets less precipitation than the East and gets most of it as snow.  Plus the West has deeper canyons hiding their rivers.  Because of these differences, there are different rules for using water use in the East and West.    
Everyone and everything needs water, which is simple and always true. Prior appropriation water law – the rules for dividing up water in the West - starts simple, but gets so complicated that there’s not one thing that is always true (except that people will always fight over their water). I tried to explain prior appropriation using the Up-Goer Five editor, which only uses the 10,000 most common English words (prior, appropriate, and rule are not common words). 
The first user gets all the water can-do's:
1. Everyone has to ask for a water right from the state.
2. Water has to be used for these things: growing food, watering houses, cleaning people, making things, growing some animals, and fun. Usually there is not enough water for animals and fun or for not-white people to grow food.
3. The water right you asked for says where, when, and how much water can be used.
4. The first person to ask always gets all their water.  They don’t have to share ever.
5. If there isn't enough water, the last people don't get their water but the first people still get all of their water.
6. It's very bad to not get water and there is less water around than we need, so some people are trying to change the can do's to be better for all the people and the world.

Under prior appropriation water law in Utah, using water you don’t have a right to (the official term for that is ‘thugging water’) is a felony.  
Want some more details?  Awesome!  (Special terms in italics).

Prior Appropriation Water Law (Utah)
Utah is the 2nd driest state in the US, receiving less than 34.3 cm (13.52 inches) of precipitation a year.  That’s not enough water to feed a lot of people and most of that water comes at a time (spring) and in places where we can’t use it (river bottoms).  Water rights are issued by the state to get water from where it flows naturally to where it’s needed. This is diversion and it requires dams and canals to work.
The things you can use water for are the strictly defined beneficial uses in each state’s laws.  Utah’s beneficial uses are irrigation, stock-watering, domestic, municipal, industrial, wildlife propagation, and recreation. (Note environment is not there)
Rights for some uses can be had year-round; others only during the part of year plants are growing (Period of Use). No one can use more water than is needed to grow or make what their water right is issued for (Duty of Water).
The way we divide up water is based on mining rules – the first to stake a claim is the first to get their water when it is scarce. When there isn’t enough water, the latest to make a claim is the first to get all their water turned off.
First in time, first in right 
If a water right is not used for 7 years in a row or the whole right isn’t used then it is forfeited.
Use it or lose it
Indian Reservations and environmental water needs weren’t considered legal until after most water had been given to others to use. That means that they might have recognized water rights, but no water is actually delivered. 
Paper water vs. wet water

Diverting water from where it naturally flows is a big change from the way water is used in rainier places.  In those places the rules follow Riparian Water Law, which allows anyone who owns land next to a waterbody to utilize a reasonable amount of water for any use. 
The most beautiful canal I know: The Bear Lake Outlet canal
Water rights are an interesting type of property that you can buy and sell, but you can’t keep it.  A water right is usufructuary which means you have the right and obligation to use water.  The state gives out water rights, which come with a lot of specifications:

A water right for Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, the right is 3 pages long
“First in right, first in time’ is just the skeleton of a hefty body of laws and policies (The Law of the River).  For the Bear River right pictured above, all policies below also apply:
  • This is just one of 29 water rights the Refuge maintains
  • Lower Bear River water users meet to plan how water will be divided between the locals every year
  • The Bear River Development Act will require pulling water out of the Bear before it reaches this diversion (in the future)
  • Court cases from the 1900’s direct PacifiCorp to manage water is Bear Lake (which will eventually make it to GSL) to prevent flooding in Idaho
  • The Bear River Compact says how much of the river each state (UT, ID, and WY) can hand out; each state has different beneficial uses
The Refuge is the last user on the Bear River and in most summers there’s not enough water in the river to meet to their needs because that water is being used upstream.  While they have a right to 1,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of Bear River water, there is only 200 cfs actually in the river during the summer when crops need irrigated.  A 1928 priority seems old, but in the history of Utah settlement it’s not, so there isn’t anyone with a younger right the Refuge could ask to turn off their water.     
The month water needs for the Refuge are written in their water right.  Any time on of the colored lines dips below the solid black line, it means there is less water available than the Refuge needs.  
The rules about water in the Western US are unfair, especially for Native Americans and the environment.  The reason for all the unfairness (aside from the history of shorting native people and the environment) is that the goal of prior appropriation is efficiency, not equity.  The harsh landscape of the West supports billions of people who don't worry about where their water comes from.  That’s insanely efficient, given how little rain we get.  Efficiency is an unsatisfying explanation for injustice, but it’s helped me interpret history better. 
Laws are tortuously slow to change, but they are changing to better reflect the values and understanding we now have about water.  Did you know storing rain water wasn’t legal in Utah until 2010?  It is now.  And I’ve been hearing rumors of finding a water right for Great Salt Lake (GSL), which is suffering even more than the wetlands around it.  If water law never changed, that wouldn’t even be considered because keeping water in GSL doesn’t require a diversion (a key component of prior appropriation) and staying great and salty isn’t one of Utah’s beneficial uses (yet). 
But how does prior appropriation affect you? News about snow, water-based recreation, fish, and even dust is ultimately about water rights.  When we have a bad ski season everyone (farmers, boaters, and asthmatics) suffers because it means there won’t be enough water to irrigate farms, fill reservoirs, or prevent dust storms at the same time. 
Farmington Bay of Great Salt Lake in August, 2013. Most of the Jordan River’s water was used for other things before it got to Great Salt Lake. 
Do you recreate in boats? Bodies of water with a dam on them are reservoirs that were built so people with water rights could save up their water until it’s needed. Powell, Strawberry, Pineview, and parts of Bear Lake are reservoirs. 
Dam it! Jackson Lake, WY is a reservoir
Do you eat food?  If it was grown west of the Mississippi River it was probably irrigated, which requires water rights. 
Cow food (i.e., alfalfa) accounts for a lot of our water use
Even the desert, defined by lack of water, is shaped by it.  Deep canyons are cut by rivers. Those stunning cliffs make it hard to access water, which necessitates the reservoirs mentioned above.

This is a lot of info, and I haven’t even gotten to groundwater, the link between water quality and water quantity, or the federal government and water.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Pokey Plant Parts Leave Psychological Scars

It’s Invasive Species Week 2018 (February 26 – March 2), which is a great opportunity to learn more about plants by looking at vegetative villains.  Last year we covered what an invasive species is and why they’re so good at being everywhere (there are levels of invasive-ness and invasive species have plant superpowers).  This year we’ll look at one superpower in particular: pokiness

Nothing says DO NOT DISTURB like a thicket of thorns
Several years ago I was on a field crew tasked with surveying a random selection of wetlands across the entire state of Utah and somehow ended up visiting the same pokey wetland on the Little Bear River twice.  Measuring that wetland was like getting a piggyback ride from a porcupine: we were poked by mosquitoes, stabbed by barbed wire and thorny trees, and carried out a lot of burdock (twice!).  Invasive species were invading my personal space and making me bleed.  That was just one unpleasant day, but it got me wondering, why are so many soggy, neglected places like disturbed wetlands and roadside ditches full of stabbing weeds?   
This is not the pokey site, instead here's a undisturbed wetland
I don’t have time to conduct my own scientific study on the prevalence of pokey plants in disturbed wetlands, but I can review other scientist’s research for answers to my question.  It’ll be a blogging and learning adventure.  

Research Question: Why are disturbed wetlands full of invasive and pokey plants? I’ve got some ideas about what might be happening, because I know stuff about plants, so we can formulate a couple hypotheses to test. 

1.  Disturbance Hypothesis: disturbances that leave bare ground (e.g. flooding, road building) make great opportunities for pokey plants to invade. 

2.  Pokey Hypothesis: once established on bare ground, pokey plants grow big and dense (pokier) because they aren’t eaten by animals.

Methods: Looking at the research others have completed on common northern Utah wetland invaders that are also pokey species to see if they support our hypotheses or not.  Our invaders of interest in order of pokey length: Russian olive (thorns), Bull thistle (spines), Common burdock (hooks), Roses (prickles), and Stinging nettle (hairs). 

Russian olive - Elaeagnus angustifolia - bigly pokeys called thorns  
Before we gently step into the world of pokey plants I should explain what we’re talking about.  My trusty plant dictionary [1] doesn’t define ‘pokey,’ it skips from ‘podogyne’ (a structure that supports an ovary) to ‘pollen’ (male gametophytes).  However, it does define spines, thorns, horns, hooked, prickle, process, and many types of hairs (short, long, stiff, soft, straight, or branching).  

Bull thistle - Cirsium vulgare - pretty spine pokeys
Prickles are small and sharp growths of the epidermis or bark.  Sharp parts that come from below the epidermis are spines and small spines are called spinulesThorns are woody, sharply pointed modified stems.  Short, hair-like poking things are called bristles.  Not all pokey parts are straight: barbed plants have fish hook-like rigid barbs, which shouldn’t be confused with hooked plants, whose pokey parts are bent like hooks, but not as stiff as barbs.  All of this is separate from plant surfaces that aren’t pokey but aren’t smooth, they can be scabrous, siliceous, ribbed, hirsute, or exasperate.  In plant terminology spikes are a shape flowers grow in, not at all involved in the world of pokeys.  Pokey is my term for plant parts like bristles, prickles, spines, thorns, or hooks.  Pokey plans are armed plants and the pokeys are their armature

Thorns – the biggest of the pokeys

Well, Russian olive info supports our second hypothesis that being thorny prevents animals from eating you, but fails to support our first hypothesis about disturbance.

Spines – trouble all over

Promising results: Bull thistle is a disturbance-friendly plant that isn't grazed.  Both hypotheses supported.  Except for bears. 

Hooks – able to reach out and grab you

Hmmm.  Burdock grows well in disturbed places, but also gets chewed on.  Only the first hypothesis on disturbance is supported.  

 Prickles – adorable term for a painful poke

Shoot.  Roses don't support either hypothesis, they don't need disturbance and they're plenty tasty to animals.  

Stinging hairs – you won’t even see what’s causing so much pain

Similar to Russian olives, Stinging nettles aren't often chewed on because of their pokeys, but they don't sprout on disturbed ground.


Common burdock - Arctium minus - hooked pokeys hitch rides on anything with fur
Turns out, invasive species are complicated.  While we found some support for both hypotheses, only Bull thistle supported both because it establishes quickly on disturbed soil and then grows densely because animals will not graze it.  Burdock will grow well on bare ground, supporting the first hypothesis, but grazing mammals are willing to chew it and help disperse seeds.  Wild and livestock animals won’t graze Russian olive or Stinging nettle, allowing them to grow tall and dense, but neither establishes on bare ground.  Invasive roses supported neither of my hypotheses: they are deliberately introduced and are eaten by many animal groups. 

Sweetbriar rose - Rosa rubiginosa - a prickle by any other name would still hurt
In conclusion, pokey plant parts are just of the many features of invasive species that allow them to grow in places they don’t belong. But now we know some fun facts about invasive species that aren’t Phragmites.   

Stinging nettle - Urtica dioica - don't walk there!  The stinging hairs have histamines in them

Literature Cited:

[1] Harris, J. G., & Woolf Harris, M. (2009). Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary.  Spring Lake Publishing, Spring Lake, Utah.
[2] Katz, G. L., & Shafroth, P. B. (2003). Biology, ecology and management of Elaeagnus angustifolia L. (Russian olive) in western North America. Wetlands23(4), 763-777. Available:
[3] Zouhar, Kris. 2005. Elaeagnus angustifolia. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available:
[4] Zouhar, Kris. 2002. Cirsium vulgare. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available:  [2018, February 26].
[5] GROSS, R. S., WERNER, P. A., & HAWTHORN, W. R. (1980). The biology of Canadian weeds. 38. Arctium minus (Hill) Bernh. and A. lappa L. Canadian Journal of Plant Science60(2), 621-634. Available:
[6] Province of Manitoba. (2017). Common Burdock. In: Weeds, [Online]. Available: (
[7] Richardson, D. M., & Rejm├ínek, M. (2011). Trees and shrubs as invasive alien species–a global review. Diversity and distributions17(5), 788-809. Available:
[8] Munger, Gregory T. 2002. Rosa multiflora. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2018, February 27]. 
[9] Wikipedia. 2018. Urtica dioica. [Online]. Available:
[10] Carey, Jennifer H. 1995. Urtica dioica. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2018, February 27]

Friday, October 27, 2017

Wetlands are Also Amazing Under the Ground

Last year I read this actual good advice on the Internet: 

Eric (@MarshNinja) is my academic BFF, my mud brother, and a fellow marsh person who advised me, “The marsh giveth and the marsh taketh away.”  Through this friendship I got many good times as well as the chance to work on Chesapeake Bay, tend a greenhouse experiment, and ultimately help write a paper about it.  Academic paper writing is the worst, but slightly better with friends. 

"Spatial and temporal variation in brackish wetland seedbanks: Implications for wetland restoration following Phragmites control" is a complicated paper, so I thought I'd try to tackle it visually and in four parts. 

1. Why work on Phragmites?
2. Where and when did Phragmites research happen?
3. What are seedbanks?
4. How did the experiment work out?   

1. Why Phragmites?  Phragmites is terrible, a literal wetland invader that conquers marshes and vanquishes native, nicer wetland plants.  Invading Phragmites is a problem across North America, and once it's in place we struggle to get rid of it.  

2.  Where and when Phragmites was studied.  Chesapeake Bay has been through some stuff.  In addition to being one of the first places invaded by Phragmites, it also supports a lot of people, hosts an international shipping port, and has a watershed covering six states with many potentially polluting land uses.

Eric's PhD work began in 2011, when he started an experiment to remove Phragmites from several wetlands across the Bay and see how marshes he herbicided (removal wetlands) compare to wetlands with untreated stands of Phragmites (control wetlands), and beautiful, uninvaded wetlands (native wetlands).  Eric measured a lot of wetland changes caused by spraying herbicide (like above ground vegetation and soil chemistry), but this paper focused on how seedbanks changed over three years in three types of wetlands (herbicided, Phragmites, and native) in five sub-watersheds with different land uses. 

Are you getting a sense of the scale?  Altogether, Eric and his field helpers took 675 soil cores from frozen Maryland marshes, transported them to Utah, and made them grow in USU greenhouses.  (And that's a conservative guess: 15 cores per plot x three treatment plots per watershed x five watersheds x three years.)

3.  What are seedbanks?  Amazing, that’s what.  Seedbanks are soils chock full of new and old seeds.  Every year wetland plants make flowers, which are pollinated, which then turn into seeds.  Some seeds, like Phragmites seeds, float around in the air and drop to the ground miles away from where they started.  Other seeds float on the water, following ocean currents, tides, or streams to faraway places.  Seeds even hitch rides on animals, either latching to fur or being eaten and pooped, essentially migrating to new lands.  But the majority of seeds fall off their parent plants and end up in the soils near where they started.  

No matter how they got into the seedbank, seeds will wait patiently for the right conditions to sprout (or emerge) into leafy, photosynthesizing plants.  The right light, temperature, and flooding conditions are different for each species, so the actual growing plants in any spot are a small fraction of what is in the seedbank.  Some seeds can wait decades for their chance, just hanging out in the soil as layer upon layer of dead plants, seeds, and dirt build up.  It's called a “seedbank” because it's a sort of plant species savings account that can be cashed in during tough times, like after a hurricane wipes out all the vegetation or grad students kill it all with herbicide.  In an ideal world, seedbanks could be used to help with wetland restoration: if wetland folks can just give the seedbank the right conditions to grow (for example, through removing all the weeds) then good, native plants will come out. 

Eric's experiment involved growing all those seedbank samples in USU's greenhouses under real cushy circumstances: warm, well lit, plenty of water, lots of fertilizer and no competition.  The plant species that sprouted from the seedbank then show the history of each wetland and the potential plant species that would come up if a wetland were restored.  For the life of me, I can't figure out why there aren't more exclamation marks in seedbank papers.  The introduction to all of them should be, “We took chunks of dirt out of the frozen ground, added water, and got the marsh's underground secrets!”   

4.  How did the experiment work out? We used some stats magic to characterize the hundreds of species that sprouted from the seedbanks into a few categories so we could compare all 45 marshes (3 experiment types x 5 watersheds x 3 years).  We were most interested in how big the seedbanks were (total seeds germinated), how many species were in each seedbank (species richness), how much of the seeds were invasive species, and how many different types of plants were in the seedbanks (functional diversity).  We hypothesized that seedbanks would be pretty different between the wetlands that had Phragmites and those that did not.  After three years of Phragmites spraying we also expected that the seedbanks would change, since the plants actually growing on the marshes changed. 

Wetlands do what they want and they don't want to cooperate with our hypotheses. With a couple exceptions (there are always exceptions), the different experimental types (Phragmites removal, Phragmites control, and native) did not have distinctly different seedbank communities.  However, each watershed did have its own unique plant community, which increased the statistical difficulty of this project to DEFCON 2 (war is imminent).  Even more difficult to decipher was the fact that seeds mixed on the tides, so there were differences in the wetland seedbank community between the low and high elevations of any given experimental type.  One more wrinkle: Phragmites stems change how tides come in and out of wetlands, thus changing where tide-transported seeds will settle out.     

Holy Complexity! Each row is a watershed and each column is a year.  Within each box, the different symbol types are the different experimental treatments; the farther away each marker and circle are, the more different the plants within the seedbank.

In order to describe the general differences between wetlands in different watersheds and between experimental treatments, we lumped the seedbank sprouts into groups based on whether they were annual (fast growing species) or perennial (come back each year) species and native or invasive.  The hypothesis (and the hope in restoration) is that when Phragmites is removed you'll see lots of native species and lots of different types (grassy, woody, flowery) coming back to fill in the space Phragmites used to take.  While there were plenty of differences in the proportion of those groups across Chesapeake Bay, there weren't any consistent differences between Phragmites before and after herbicide was sprayed. 

Each row is a different watershed and every year has its own column.  There is a sub-column for each experimental treatment (+/- herbicide, no phrag) and every dot and bar is the number of seeds that sprouted from each plant group: invasive perennial species (IP), native annuals (NA), and native perennials (NP). 

The other part of the seedbanks we looked at was how much of the germinating seeds are Phragmites, since it's a prolific seed producer and could swamp all the other seedlings.  This was a shot of good news: usually Phragmites was a small part of the seedbank, relative to all the other species.  The seedbanks were almost always pretty species rich too, which means that if the seeds in the seedbank were given a chance to grow then the wetlands where Phragmites was removed might look nice.  But here’s the kicker: the seedbanks were showing much different things than the actual plants growing in these wetlands.  Even worse, in some place the wetland melted into the Bay after Phragmites died because no plants came back to replace it.  Turns out Phragmites does have some benefits, especially in tidal wetlands, because it holds the wetlands in place (and a Phragmites-wetland is better than no wetland at all).  

So, what to make of all the plots, other than accepting that wetlands do what they want?  The good news is that wetland seedbanks stay diverse even after Phragmites changes all the above ground diversity to zero.  The bad news is two parts.  First, places like the Chesapeake Bay are so large and complicated that factors we didn’t have time/resources/whatever to measure, like water chemistry or patterns of tidal flooding or history, will determine whether you get a successful restoration.   The amount of wind fetch, water column nutrients, sand dunes, or any other number of things might be more relevant to the seedbank and Phragmites restoration than the things we could actually measure.  Second, even with healthy seedbanks, plants aren't coming back following herbicide spraying so we've got to invest in planting live plants, which is pricey. 

Want to read more of the paper’s juicy details?  Of course you do!  I only covered half of the results here.  You can find the whole thing in the online September issue of Estuaries and Coasts

Full paper details: 
Hazelton, E.L.G., Downard, R., Kettenring, K.M. et al. Estuaries and Coasts (2017). 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Plants are the Coolest. That is All.

Exciting news! I’ve spent the last two years working on a guide to the plants found in Great Salt Lake wetlands and it’s finally published online!  You can download it for free HERE.
First, a word about collaboration.  Group projects get a bad name because they are frustrating while you’re in school.  However, ‘Wetland Plants of Great Salt Lake’ only exists because of a group of coauthors.  I had loads of plant pictures, but Karin and Mark had the vision, encouragement, and funding required to turn my original PowerPoint presentation into an Extension publication.  Maureen brought a passion for communicating science and great bird knowledge to a guide that was originally just about plants.  And Jennifer’s document design and technical communication skills pulled it all into a beautiful and cohesive book.   It was difficult sharing control of a project that was so close to my heart, but I’m happy I did because my coauthors made into something really wonderful.  The peer-reviewers were also great; plant identification is hard and their corrections were awesome.  The plant guide is one of the outputs from grad school I’m most proud of.   

Dichotomous (or ‘two-choice’) keys are the traditional tool for identifying plants.  They’re like a Choose Your Own Adventure. You begin at the top with a plant that could be any one of 400,000 extant species and following a series of decisions based on what you see in your plant you arrive at its one true identify.  Using keys is neither simple nor fun (I have to leave it at that.  I don’t have the emotional energy to address taxonomy or shy plants that won’t show me their sexy bits).  Luckily we have a manageable number of species (136) around the Great Salt Lake (GSL), so the guide relies of pictures and wetland type rather than keys.  This option is both aesthetically pleasing and completely justifies the thousands of plant pictures I have taken. 

Plant ID in it's worst form requires multiple keys, a glossary, and access to the Google.  Rant about that found here.

Four basic types of wetlands exist around GSL and the only key I’ll present is one to help you decide which type of wetland you were standing in when you found the plant you’d like to identify.  

A non-wetland and the four GSL wetland types
One caveat: plants do what they want, so many species can be found in multiple communities and might just pop up in a completely unexpected place.

Start with the best option for Step 1 (1a or 1b), follow to the next step (2a/2b or 3a/3b) until you find your wetland type. 

Plants have four basic parts – flowering parts, stem parts, leafy parts, and underground parts – all of which are modified in cool ways to allow plants to survive in wetlands.  Each part is also important in plant identification. 

In wetlands, water, light, and nutrients – the things plants need to live – are present in extreme quantities.  In order to cope with having too much or too little of what they need, wetland plants have developed bad-ass features like stems that pickle, hitch-hiking seeds, cloning capabilities, and floating parts.  I highly recommend heading out to the wetlands yourself to poke, pluck, and sniff all of the plants yourself, but here’s a quick preview of some of my favorite plants from each wetland type along with their key identifying features.   

Globally, only about 6% of the land surface is actually wetland, so non-wetlands (which we can call ‘uplands’) and their plants show up in or near wetlands.  Upland plants add some nice color to generally green marshes and wildlife like them because it’s nice to hang out in dry places sometimes. 

I’m smitten with the Rocky Mountain bee-plant (Cleome serrulata).  This beautiful, stinky species has big purple or pink flowers.  If you look closely you can see each flower has stamen (the plant parts that hold pollen) sticking out.  Bees trying to get at the nectar deep in the flowers will rub those stamen, taking some pollen in with it, which will be dropped on the next plant that bee visits.  This is pollination and it’s how plants avoid in-breeding without all the travel usually required to move genetic material. 

Playas are the coolest!  They’re only flooded during big storms or high runoff, remaining dry and salty for most of the year.  The plants and bugs in playas only sprout or hatch when conditions are just wet enough for them to complete their life cycle; migratory birds are keyed into that so flooded playas are filled with gorging birds. 

My absolute favorite plant of all time is pickleweed (Salicornia rubra).   Pickleweed leaves and flowers are just scales, which saves lots of water from being wasted.  The segmented stems are plump, a feature called succulence, because they’re full of concentrated salt water, which allows pickleweed to thrive in some of the saltiest places on Earth.  The fluid filled stems are so salty they can actually be used to pickle other plants.  In the fall the stems turn from green to red and spit out the seeds hidden under the scales, a process called dehiscence.  Fun fact, you can and should nibble on pickleweed. 

Meadows are flooded or saturated (i.e., muddy) for most of the year, but it’s hard to see the water because it’s just under the soil surface or covered by lush plant growth.  I have complicated feelings about meadows – there are so many species J, which means a lot of work with dichotomous keys L  – but I really like nodding beggarstick. 

Beggarstick (Bidens cernua) is an aster or composite flower: each flower head is made of many flowers.  The things that look like petals are ray flowers and the pokey things in the center are disk flowers. Each flower produces a seed (that’s a lot of seeds) that is shaped like a trident with 3-prongs, which are perfect for hitching a ride on an animal or ecologist struggling to get through a mass of beggarstick.  This form of seed dispersal makes it possible to again spread genetic material around without having to be mobile.  Plants are crafty like that. 

Emergent wetlands look like your typical marsh: lots of bulrushes and cattails growing up through the shallow water.  Water levels in emergent wetlands often fluctuate from wet to dry so the plants in those wetlands are darn tough. 

Alkali bulrush (Bolboschoenus maritimus) is everyone’s favorite emergent wetland plant.  It forms large loose stands that are ideal for hiding nests in and the seeds are super delicious to ducks.  Just beneath the surface many of the plants are connected through underground stems called rhizomes that store plant food over the winter and sprout new stems each spring if soils stay flooded – this means sometimes all those individual stems are actually clones of each other and can share water, gases, and food between them.  However, alkali bulrush can also sprout from seeds if a wetland dries out – it needs heat and sunlight for that – so this species can live in a huge variety of wet and dry-ish wetlands.  Even cooler, alkali bulrush seeds can survive being in a duck’s stomach and will sprout after being pooped out wherever that duck chose to fly.  It’s almost like a migratory plant species. 

I’ve been using the common plant names, which is frowned upon in academic circles, but it works best for me in wetlands.  First of all, common names are easier to remember and more widely known than scientific names.  Secondly, as taxonomists learn more about how closely or distantly related plant species are they keep changing the scientific names.  I have to assume their intentions are good, but the result is often confusion.  Since I started grad school the genus alkali bulrush belongs to has changed from Scirpus to Schoenoplectus to Bolboschoenus.  Gah!  Using the most recent scientific name is one of the fastest ways to develop a failure to communicate. However, in the guide book linked here we’ve included synonyms – all the common and scientific names a given species could be known by – in order to enhance communication about plants.  Definitely talk with other people about your plants by whatever name your heart recognizes. 

Several years ago, I heard a manager refer to submergent wetlands as ‘duck soup’ – a giant bowl of deliciousness waterfowl gorge on.  Submergent wetlands might look like simple, serene ponds, but at their healthiest the underwater world is teaming with plant and bug life. 

Spiral ditchgrass (Ruppia cirrhosa) is a species of submerged aquatic vegetation – a plant that can grow in the water instead of outside it.  Spiral ditchgrass reproduction is adaptable: it can regenerate through underground parts called tubers or through floating seeds. Even the stems are amazing, they’re flexible enough to droop and spread when water levels fall or they can grow fast when water levels rise and they need to reach sunlight.  The stems and leaves can even photosynthesize under low light levels.  Plus all the parts, from the floating flower parts to the underground tubers, are delicious and nutritious for birds.  The spiraling peduncles (flower stalks) are my second favorite identifying plant feature, fun to say and fun to see. 

Now that you’re armed with a little info on wetland plants, make a visit to your local wetland.  I put together a map of northern Utah wetlands here.