Assessment of cumulative impacts on wetlands can benefit by recognizing three fundamental wetland categories: basin, riverine, and fringe. The geomorphological settings of these categories have relevance for water quality.
Basin, or depressional, wetlands are located in headwater areas, and capture runoff from small areas. Thus, they are normally sources of water with low elemental concentration. Although basin wetlands normally possess a high capacity for assimilating nutrients, there may be little opportunity for this to happen if the catchment area is small and little water flows through them.
Riverine wetlands, in contrast, interface extensively with uplands. It has been demonstrated that both the capacity and the opportunity for altering water quality are high in riverine wetlands.
Fringe wetlands are very small in comparison with the large bodies of water that flush them. Biogeochemical influences tend to be local, rather than having a measurable effect on the larger body of water. Consequently, the function of these wetlands for critical habitat may warrant protection from high nutrient levels and toxins, rather than expecting them to assume an assimilatory role.
The relative proportion of these wetland types within a watershed, and their status relative to past impacts can be used to develop strategies for wetland protection. Past impacts on wetlands, however, are not likely to be clearly revealed in water quality records from monitoring studies, either because records are too short or because too many variables other than wetland impacts affect water quality. It is suggested that hydrologic records be used to reconstruct historical hydroperiods in wetlands for comparison with current, altered conditions. Changes in hydroperiod imply changes in wetland function, especially for biogeochemical processes in sediments. Hydroperiod is potentially a more sensitive index of wetland function than surface areas obtained from aerial photographs. Identification of forested wetlands through photointerpretation relies on vegetation that may remain intact for decades after drainage. Finally, the depositional environment of wetlands is a landscape characteristic that has not been carefully evaluated nor fully appreciated. Impacts that reverse depositional tendencies also may accelerate rates of change, causing wetlands to be large net exporters rather than modest net importers. Increases in rates as well as direction can cause stocks of materials, accumulated over centuries in wetland sediments, to be lost within decades, resulting in nutrient loading to downstream aquatic ecosystems.