The beauty of wetlands

The beauty of wetlands – includes related information on the benefits of wetlands

Vicki Monks

OUT ON THE OKLAHOMA prairie where land is mostly dry, most people would define “wetland” as a swampy place, full of ducks and waving marsh grasses. That had been my impression until one stormy spring evening years ago, when a rushing stream more than a foot deep abruptly materialized in the living room of my Oklahoma City home. A parcel of soggy lowland in an older development had been filled to make room for more houses. Mine had been built on the fill. Looking at my yard most times of the year, the term wetland would not have come readily to mind. No creeks flowed nearby, and the red clay fill frequently baked dry and cracked in the heat. But during heavy rains the water always came back.

Back then, in the 1970s, thousands of prairie wetlands like this one were being filled to make way for agriculture or development. Scientists understood by then that even small, isolated wetlands served important purposes, trapping sediment and pollutants, and holding rainwater for slow release, making western rivers less prone to flooding. But government policy was slow in catching up with the science, and it wasn’t until several years after the 1977 reauthorization of the federal Clean Water Act that serious wetlands protection enforcement began.

Today, scientists understand far more about wetlands. Hydrologists can explain why wetland soils are unsuitable for building and how displacing water from wetlands affects neighboring property. Researchers are better able to calculate how much runoff various types of wetlands will absorb, and how many acres of those wetlands are needed to avoid catastrophic floods.

Much more is known about how wetlands cleanse pollutants from groundwater, and why these damp areas are prime habitat for wildlife. Scientists even know, as Louisiana biologist V.W. Lambou documented, how many tons of crawfish will grow in each square mile of seasonally flooded bottomland hardwood wetlands, and how much those wetland-dependent species are worth to the economy. But at the same time science is advancing our understanding of the functions of wetlands and their benefits to society, Congress is moving to rescind wetlands protections.

If the 104th Congress carries through on changes in laws already approved by the House of Representatives, as much as 95 percent of the remaining U.S. wetlands could be opened for development. According to EPA assistant administrator Robert Perciasepe, if legislation is approved, most prairie potholes, vernal pools, playa lakes and streamside riparian zones, as well as large portions of the Everglades, would no longer be considered wetlands.

The impetus for these changes comes largely from property-rights advocates who believe that federal wetlands rules have gone too far. As property-rights spokesman James Burling said in testimony before a Senate subcommitte last year, “Every landowner with a damp spot on a vacant lot risks federal prison for building a home.”

Listening to Burling and others ridicule the efforts of federal officials to protect even those wetlands that are frequently dry, I kept thinking of my long-ago flooded home, and the recent experiences of Pennsylvania residents like Marlene Freeman, who unwittingly bought homes constructed on or near filled wetlands and who subsequently had to contend with cracked foundations, collapsed walls and mudslides.

“Last year when the snow melted the water came in so fast it was like a fire hydrant,” Freeman says. “I always knew that wetlands were important ecologically, but I never realized the impact they had on everything else. When you fill wetlands and put houses on them, there’s no place for the water to go but into roads and people’s homes.”

Ed Perry, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), has collected photos of Pennsylvania houses sinking into wetlands, and new foundations filling up with water. “The irony of all of this is that it’s the wetlands that look the least like wetlands that are the greatest threat to a homeowner’s investment,” Perry says. “Trees are very good at pumping groundwater and lowering the water table during summer, so people don’t realize it’s a wetland. But when contractors start to bulldoze trees off the site, lo and behold, the groundwater pops to the surface again and they’ve got a lifelong water problem.”

The other person who gets hurt, says Perry, is the neighbor who realizes that water that was once stored harmlessly in the wetland is now going to be displaced onto his property. That happened to neighbors of John Pozsgai, a Pennsylvania mechanic who served jail time for illegally filling a wetland in order to expand his business. Property-rights groups point to Pozsgai’s case as an example of wetlands regulations out of control. But according to court records, Pozsgai used the fact that the property had protected wetlands to negotiate a lower price, and then ignored official warnings to stop filling them. The records also show that neighbors began complaining of floods soon after Pozsgai’s wetland was filled.

The flooding problems created through loss of wetlands don’t stop with immediate neighbors, either. According to the National Weather Service, flood damages have risen dramatically since the turn of the century, and the increases coincide with the disappearance of wetlands. By the mid-1980s half of the original wetlands in the lower 48 states were gone, amounting to a loss of some 117 million acres. And in spite of regulations, the most recent data show a continued loss of 290,000 ares of U.S. wetlands a year.

In seven states in the upper Mississippi River watershed, nearly 80 percent of the original wetlands are gone. If only a portion of those wetlands still existed, Illinois floodplain management specialist Nancy Philippi calculates, they could have contained the flood waters that devastated St. Louis and other cities in 1993. Based upon water retention figures from experimental wetland sites, Philippi and hydrologist Donald Hey estimated that restoration of 13 million acres (or about 20,000 square miles) of strategically-placed wetlands in the Mississippi watershed could keep the river from overflowing under the same rainfall conditions that caused $15.7 billion in damages in 1993.

“We know wetlands are absolutely critical to the survival of large numbers of endangered species, but we are also beginning to understand how important they are for human comfort and survival,” says Douglas Inkley, NWF wetlands team leader. In addition to providing flood protection by functioning like natural sponges, wetlands recharge groundwater supplies and filter out toxics and other pollutants–saving cities millions of dollars each year in water treatment costs.

Research conducted by Mark Brinson, an ecologist at East Carolina University, found that wetlands associated with headwater streams are the most important ecosystems for improving water quality. Yet the legislation under consideration in Congress might exclude headwater wetlands from protection. Both the House and Senate bills set up a three-tiered classification system that divides wetlands into high, medium and low value. As a result, only those wetlands considered to be of highest value would receive significant protection.

Because different types of wetlands serve different functions and are valuable for different reasons, scientists cannot rank them as Congress proposes. “We don’t have the science to deal with it in that way,” Brinson says.

The bills could also hinder efforts to preserve habitat for wide-ranging species. A National Wildlife Federation study concluded that wetlands, like rainforests, are biological motherlodes. Forty three percent of all federally listed threatened and endangered species rely on wetlands at some point in their lives. South Dakota State University researcher Carter Johnson found that pintails draw a substantial portion of their diets from the seasonal prairie potholes that dot the northern plains.

A 1995 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) noted that “although these wetlands make up only 4 percent of the surface water in the pothole region, they support a large percentage of the total populations of several of the most abundant [duck] species.” Those shallow wetlands thaw earliest in the spring, producing abundant food for migratory birds when it is most needed.

But because these potholes are wet only part of the time–generally less than the 21 consecutive days required to be considered a wetland under both the House and Senate bills–all protection could be removed. The House approved the 21-day requirement even though the NAS argued in its May 1995 report to Congress that there was no scientific basis for such a designation. In 1993, Congress had asked the highly-respected academy to refine the definition of wetlands and to suggest ways of bringing more fairness to the regulatory process. But so far, the 104th Congress has ignored the academy’s advice.

The NAS concludes that it is not necessarily the wettest of wetlands that deserve the greatest protection. “It is sometimes difficult for the regulated public to understand how sites that are often dry can be classified as wetlands,” the authors note, “[but] wetlands in zones that flood only intermittently could be among the most important for storing flood waters; their capacity to reduce peak discharge would be negligible if they were always full.” The academy warns that if wetlands are altered during dry periods they can lose their ability to process flood water and filter pollutants.

Joy Zedler, a San Diego State University biologist and wetland specialist with the Pacific Estuarine Research Lab, carries the academy’s conclusions a step further. “The idea that a wetland can be isolated from the rest of the landscape and watershed is defunct,” she says. For instance, wetland plants are pollinated by bees that nest in the upland. “So we know that if we are trying to manage or restore wetland habitat, we have to do so in a larger ecological setting.”

Congress, though, does not appear headed in that direction. Lawmakers have already zeroed-out the budget for the National Wetlands Inventory. “I am mystified,” says Tom Dahl who heads the FWS program to identify wetland loss hotspots. “Regardless of which side of the fence you are on, there’s just no good reason for not wanting to know the true extent of the loss.”

Maria Bechis, another Pennsylvania resident exasperated by this winter’s flooding on the Delaware River, is encouraging other flood victims to let Congress know they will not tolerate further loss of wetlands. “The flooding is not just an act of God,” Bechis says. “Congress is talking about risk assessment. Before they change wetlands laws they should calculate the risk of increased damages from floods that will result. Who is going to pay for that?” And as an afterthought she adds that politicians might also do well to calculate the risks of continuing to vote for measures that harm the environment and disrupt people’s lives.

Thinking back to the irritation I felt cleaning up the mud left by the flood at my Oklahoma City home, and my realization back then that my house should never have been built where it was, it occurred to me that the point Congress may be missing is that wetlands regulations are not just for the benefit of turtles, birds and bears. Protecting wetlands protects people as well.

New Mexico journalist Vicki Monks wrote about Congressional attempts to weaken environmental laws in the April/May issue.

FERTILE GROUND: In North Dakota, a sooty tern flies across a prairie marsh that provides vital food and habitat for dozens of species of wildlife.

Working Magic Beneath the Surface

Salt marsh terns flock past apartment buildings (above) in Ballona Creek, a 900-acre wetland that is the largest remaining salt marsh within Los Angeles city limits. Such urban wetlands act like natural sponges, containing flood waters, recharging groundwater supplies and filtering out pollutants. In rural areas, wetlands also help keep waterways clean by filtering runoff. One marsh plant, duckweed, works such magic in an Illinois cypress swamp (inset, right), where a six-spotted fishing spider waits for prey. A magnified cutaway photo (right) reveals how the pollution-eating duckweed forms a mat below the swamp surface.

REST STOP: Western sandpipers crowd together in a mud flat at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. The wetland area was once the site of a proposed industrial complex, but today it serves as an important resting and feeding ground for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds during their annual flight to Alaska. Though this refuge is now protected, as much as 95 percent of the remaining U.S. wetlands could be opened for development if proposed changes to federal laws are enacted by the Congress.

DUCK FACTORIES: Prairie potholes merge with farmland (right) in North Dakota. A National Academy of Sciences report found that these seasonal, small wetlands “support a large percentage of the total populations” of mallards (above) and several other species of ducks.

Seeks to Stop the Loss of Wetlands

The National Wildlife Federation is continuing its long tradition of working to stem the loss of America’s remaining wetlands, and to help restore lost or damaged wetlands. You can help NWF in its efforts to increase awareness about the importance and declining status of the nation’s wetlands, and ensure that effective wetlands protection laws are passed and enforced. For more information, write: Dept. FW70H019, NWF, 1400 Sixteenth St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.

COPYRIGHT 1996 National Wildlife Federation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group