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More Than Monarchs: Water Quality

Aug 09, 2019


  • More than Monarchs

Why Monarchs? While monarchs are intrinsically important, conserving monarchs matters for more than just their own protection. We’re exploring the ways that monarch habitat and conservation helps people, other wildlife and the environment in this ‘More than Monarchs’ series! Join us to learn more. 

The quality and quantity of water in our streams, rivers and lakes are being affected by human activity. Before people began developing the land for housing, industry, and agriculture, the landscape was dominated by forests, prairies, and wetlands. As rain fell on these landscapes, it was infiltrated into the ground, absorbed by plants, or would run off into the nearest stream or river. Now, when it rains, those water droplets come in contact with many impervious surfaces that the water can’t get through, like roofs, parking lots, streets, and lawns. Yes...that’s right, lawns! While the crisp appearance of a freshly mown lawn may be aesthetically pleasing to some, the roots of turf grass only penetrate a few inches into the soil and form a dense mat, making them less permeable to rainfall. (Read more about lawns here.)

With more impermeable surfaces, less water is absorbed into the soil than historically. As the water flows across these surfaces, it picks up pollutants and other materials and carries them long distances, pouring from our storm drains and ditches into our streams, rivers, and lakes. In addition to decreasing the water quality, more flooding and erosion occurs with large amounts of water flowing quickly off these hard surfaces and not being absorbed.  

You may be asking yourself, how can monarch conservation help improve water quality and reduce the likelihood of flooding events? The answer is that any monarch planting, large or small, helps reconnect and restore some of the natural functions that our landscape historically provided. Because of this, the habitat you plant to help monarchs can make a positive impact on the water quality in your watershed. Whether you are a gardener, land manager, farmer, city planner, or another type of land or water steward, your pollinator habitat project can make a difference.

Unlike turf grass, native plants that make up monarch and pollinator habitat like milkweed, wildflowers, and bunch grasses, have deep root systems that can reach several feet into the ground. These roots not only provide soil stability and prevent erosion, they also form channels in the soil that help rainfall soak in and replenish our groundwater supply. Moreover, some plants act as sponges for heavy metals and other pollutants, and can prevent them from getting into our streams, rivers, and lakes by soaking them up into their tissues with the water and removing them from the soil. Native plant buffers along roadsides, streams, and agricultural fields, residential or corporate rain-gardens, and any other type of landscaping can be planted with native milkweed, wildflowers, and grasses. These plants provide food and shelter for many wildlife species, including monarchs, while also helping to slow the flow of runoff and prevent contaminants from reaching our waterways.

A monarch butterfly rests on swamp milkweed in front of rushes by a shoreline.Planting habitat for monarchs actively reduces the amount of runoff and pollution in our waterways by disrupting the flow of runoff and providing additional places for water to go in the ground. It also requires fewer inputs than other ecosystems, like crops, lawns, or ornamental landscaping. Native flowers and grasses existed long before European settlement alongside the other flora and fauna, and are well adapted to regional soil and moisture conditions. Millions of pounds of chemical inputs are used on conventional landscaping across the country every year, and this leads to greater pollution and detriment to the health of beneficial insects and the many aquatic residents of our streams, rivers, and lakes. 

Monarch conservation is about much more than monarch butterflies. The actions we take to sustain monarch populations are also water stewardship practices. They can help not only this imperiled butterfly, but also our aquatic ecosystems and the precious water that we also rely on for survival and recreation. To learn more about steps you can take to protect the quality of your watershed, get in touch with your local soil and water conservation district and take a pledge to start or continue healthy water practices, like creating monarch habitat.

Many groups have seen this connection, and have taken up the cause to protect pollinators and our water at the same time. For example, MJV Partner Metro Blooms is working with communities to build capacity for stormwater, pollinators and people together and many soil and water conservation districts and water alliances across the country are leading local projects to strengthen pollinator communities while cleaning this shared precious resource. 

Water quality is just one example of how the work we do for monarchs can make a difference in many ways. What are the co-benefits of monarch conservation that matter most to you? Keep following our “More than Monarchs” series to hear more stories of what monarchs can do for us, our communities and our world. 


The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Photos by Wendy Caldwell and Candy Sarikonda. Article contributed by Amber Barnes, Pollinator Partnership, for the Monarch Joint Venture Communications Working Group and NAPPC Monarch Taskforce.