Growing populations and agricultural intensification have led to raised riverine nitrogen (N) loads, widespread oxygen depletion in coastal zones (coastal hypoxia)1 and increases in the incidence of algal blooms.Although recent work has suggested that individual wetlands have the potential to improve water quality2–9, little is known about the current magnitude of wetland N removal at the landscape scale. Here we use National Wetland Inventory data and 5-kilometre grid-scale estimates of N inputs and outputs to demonstrate that current N removal by US wetlands (about 860 ± 160 kilotonnes of nitrogen per year) is limited by a spatial disconnect between high-density wetland areas and N hotspots. Our model simulations suggest that a spatially targeted increase in US wetland area by 10 per cent (5.1 million hectares) would double wetland N removal. This increase would provide an estimated 54 per cent decrease in N loading in nitrate-affected watersheds such as the Mississippi River Basin. The costs of this increase in area would be approximately 3.3 billion US dollars annually across the USA—nearly twice the cost of wetland restoration on non-agricultural, undeveloped land—but would provide approximately 40 times more N removal. These results suggest that water quality improvements, as well as other types of ecosystem services such as flood control and fish and wildlife habitat, should be considered when creating policy regarding wetland restoration and protection.
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