US Army Corps of Engineers
Wetlands Delineation Manual


Wetland Hydrology


46. The term "wetland hydrology" encompasses all hydrologic characteristics of areas that are periodically inundated or have soils saturated to the surface at some time during the growing season. Areas with evident characteristics of wetland hydrology are those where the presence of water has an overriding influence on characteristics of vegetation and soils due to anaerobic and reducing conditions, respectively. Such characteristics are usually present in areas that are inundated or have soils that are saturated to the surface for sufficient duration to develop hydrl.c soils and support vegetation typically adapted for life in periodically anaerobic soil conditions. Hydrolpgy is often the least exact of the parameters, and indicators of wetland hydrology are sometimes difficult to find in the field. However, it is essential to establish that a wetland area is periodically inundated or has saturated soils during the growing season.

Influencing factors

47. Numerous factors (e.g., precipitation, stratigraphy, topography,t' soil permeability, and plant cover) influence the wetness of an area. Regardless, the characteristic common to all wetlands is the presence of an abundant supply of water. The water source may be runoff from direct precipitation, headwater or backwater flooding, tidal influence, ground water, or some combination of these sources. The frequency and duration of inundation or soil saturation varies from nearly permanently inundated or saturated to irregularly inundated or saturated. Topographic position, stratigraphy, and soil permeability influence both the frequency and duration of inundation and soil saturation. Areas of lower elevation in a floodplain or marsh have more frequent periods of inundation and/or greater duration than most areas at higher elevations. Floodplain configuration may significantly affect duration of inundation. When the floodplain configuration is conducive to rapid runoff, the influence of frequent periods of inundation on vegetation and soils maylbe reduced. Soil permeability also influences duration of inundation and soil saturation. For example, clayey soils absorb water more slowly than sandy or loamy soils, and therefore have slower permeability and remain saturated much longer. Type and amount of plant cover affect both degree of inundation and duration of saturated soil conditions. Excess water drains more slowly in areas of abundant plant cover, thereby increasing frequency and duration of inundation and/or soil saturation. On the other hand, transpiration rates are higher in areas of abundant plant cover, which may reduce the duration of soil saturation.


48. Although the interactive effects of all hydrologic factors produce a continuum of wetland hydrologic regimes, efforts have been made to classify wetland hydrologic regimes into functional categories. These efforts have focused on the use of frequency, timing, and duration of inundation or soil saturation as a basis for classification. A classification system developed for nontidal areas is presented in Table 5. This classification system was slightly modified from the system developed by the Workshop on Bottomland Hardwood Forest Wetlands of the Southeastern United States (Clark and Benforado 1981). Recent research indicates that duration of inundation and/or soil saturation during the growing season is more influential on the plant community than frequency of inundation/saturation during the growing season (Theriot, in press). Thus, frequency of inundation and soil saturation are not included in Table 5. The WES has developed a computer program that can be used to transform stream gage data to mean sea level elevations representing the upper limit of each hydrologic zone shown in Table 5. This program is available upon request. [from Environmental Laboratory, US Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station, P.O. Box 631, Vicksburg, Miss. 39180].

Wetland indicators

49. Indicators of wetland hydrology may include, but are not necessarily limited to: drainage patterns, drift lines, sediment deposition, watermarks, stream gage data and flood predictions, historic records, visual observation of saturated soils, and visual observation of inundation. Any of these indicators may be evidence of wetland hydrologic characteristics. Methods for determining hydrologic indicators can be categorized according to the type of indicator. Recorded data include stream gage data, lake gage data, tidal gage data, flood predictions, and historical records. Use of these data is commonly limited to areas adjacent to streams or other similar areas. Recorded data usually provide both short- and long-term information about frequency and duration of inundation, but contain little or no information about soil saturation, which must be gained from soil surveys or other similar sources. The remaining indicators require field observations. Field indicators are evidence of present or past hydrologic events (e.g. location and height of flooding). Indicators for recorded data and field observations include:* Indicators are listed in order of decreasing reliability. Although all are valid indicators, some are stronger indicators than others. When a decision is based on an indicator appearing in the lower portion of the list, re-evaluate the parameter to ensure that the proper decision was reached.

a. Recorded data. Stream gage data, lake gage data, tidal gage data, flood predictions, and historical data may be available from the following sources:

(1) CE District Offices. Most CE Districts maintain stream, lake, and tidal gage records for major water bodies in their area. In addition, CE planning and design documents often contain valuable hydrologic information. For example, a General Design Memorandum (GDM) usually describes flooding frequencies and durations for a project area. Furthermore, the extent of flooding within a project area is sometimes indicated in the GDM according to elevation (height) of certain flood frequencies (1-, 2-, 5-, 10-year, etc.).
(2) US Geological Survey (USGS). Stream and tidal gage data are available from the USGS offices throughout the Nation, and the latter are also available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. CE Districts often have such records.
(3) State, county, and local agencies. These agencies often have responsibility for flood control/relief and flood insurance.
(4) Soil Conservation Service Small Watershed Projects. Planning documents from this agency are often helpful, and can be obtained from the SCS district office in the county.
(5) Planning documents of developers.

b. Field data. The following field hydrologic indicators can be assessed quickly, and although some of them are not necessarily indicative of hydrologic events that occur only during the growing season, they do provide evidence that inundation and/or soil saturation has occurred:

(1) Visual observation of inundation. The most obvious and revealing hydrologic indicator may be simply observing the areal extent of inundation. However, because seasonal conditions and recent weather conditions can contribute to surface water being present on a nonwetland site, both should be considered when applying this indicator.
(2) Visual observation of soil saturation. Examination of this indicator requires digging a soil pit (Appendix D, Section 1) to a depth of 16 inches and observing the level at which water stands in the hole after sufficient time has been allowed for water to drain into the hole. The required time will vary depending on soil texture. In some cases, the upper level at which water is flowing into the pit can be observed by examining the wall of the hole. This level represents the depth to the water table. The depth to saturated soils will always be nearer the surface due to the capillary fringe. For soil saturation to impact vegetation, it must occur within a major portion of the root zone (usually within 12 inches of the surface) of the prevalent vegetation. The major portion of the root zone is that portion of the soil profile in which more than one half of the plant roots occur.
CAUTION: In some heavy clay soils, water may not rapidly accumulate in the hole even when the soil is saturated. If water is observed at the bottom of the hole but has not fiLLed to the 12-inch depth, examine the sides of the hole and determine the shallowest depth at which water is entering the hole. When applying this indicator, both the season of the year and preceding weather conditions must be considered.
(3) Watermarks. Watermarks are most common on woody vegetation. They occur as stains on bark (Figure 7) or other fixed objects (e.g. bridge pillars, buildings, fences, etc.). When several watermarks are present, the highest reflects the maximum extent of recent inundation.
(4) Drift lines. This indicator is most likely to be found adjacent to streams or other sources of water flow in wetlands, but also often occurs in tidal marshes. Evidence consists of deposition of debris in a line on the surface (Figure 8) or debris entangled in aboveground vegetation or other fixed objects. Debris usually consists of remnants of vegetation (branches, stems, and leaves), sediment, litter, and other waterborne materials deposited parallel to the direction of water flow. Drift lines provide an indication of the minimum portion of the area inundated during a flooding event; the maximum level of inundation is generally at a higher elevation than that indicated by a drift line.
(5) Sediment deposits. Plants and other vertical objects often have thin layers, coatings, or depositions of mineral or organic matter on them after inundation (Figure 9). This evidence may remain for a considerable period before it is removed by precipitation or subsequent inundation. Sediment deposition on vegetation and other objects provides an. indication of the minimum inundation level. When sediments are primarily organic (e.g. fine organic material, algae), the detritus may become encrusted on or slightly above the soil surface after dewatering occurs (Figure 10).
(6) Drainage patterns within wetlands. This indicator, which occurs primarily in wetlands adjacent to streams, consists of surface evidence of drainage flow into or through an area (Figure 11). In some wetlands, this evidence may exist as a drainage pattern eroded into the soil, vegetative matter (debris) piled against thick vegetation or woody stems oriented perpendicular to the direction of water flow, or the absence of leaf litter (Figure 8). Scouring is often evident around roots of persistent vegetation. Debris may be deposited in or along the drainage pattern (Figure 12). CAUTION: Drainage patterns also occur in upland areas after periods of considerable precipitation; therefore, topographic position must also be considered when applying this indicator.

Environmental Technical Services Co., 834 Castle Ridge Rd., Austin, TX 78746-5152
Revised November 16, 1995. URL =

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