— by John Sentell of The Wetlands Initiative and James Montgomery of the Environmental Science Program, DePaul University

Shouldn’t We Just Fill in Those Pesky Wetlands?

Contrary to popular belief, wetlands provide important functions and are often called “nature’s kidneys” or “ecological supermarkets.” These important functions include storing flood water, filtering dirty water, and protecting shorelines! Wetlands also support an extensive food chain. If you like crawfish, you will find them in wetlands! Many cultures, including the Cajuns of Louisiana and various Native American tribes, have learned to live in harmony with wetlands, using them as a source of food, peat for fuel, and building materials. Wetlands may even help stabilize the climate by serving as reservoirs for excess carbon in the air.

Still believe that wetlands are wastelands?

The Situation: Swamp Thing

Are you swamped with work? Do you get bogged down with details? The English language is full of negative images of wetlands. Sadly, wetlands have gotten a bad rap both in literature and especially in film. Take, for example, classic B-rated flicks like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and that cult-fave, Swamp Thing (1982). These movies depicted wetlands as insect and disease-ridden, unattractive, and even dangerous1. Foggy, eerie, mucky and foreboding.

But are these Hollywood-type depictions true?

The Problem: Wetlands Are Undervalued

Wetlands have historically been considered to be wastelands. Early settlers and later developers, farmers, and industrialists felt that wetlands were worth more to them dry than wet.

As a result, wetlands were systematically drained, dammed, leveed and filled to make room for farms, cities, and industry, with catastrophic results. Even more amazing is the fact that the U.S. government at one time encouraged the destruction of wetlands to make the land “more productive.” In Illinois almost 7 million acres of our wetland habitats have been lost—that’s almost 90% of our pre-settlement wetlands! What is perhaps most sad is that while Illinois is often thought of as the “Prairie State”, it was once a “Wetland State”. In fact, 100 years ago, Illinois was labeled “the duck capital of the world”. But now most of these habitats are gone, along with their vital ecosystem, functions. So why is wetland loss so important to us today?

The Solution: Our Land Can Be More Valuable Wet Than Dry

The loss of wetlands is vital to all of us because of the many ecosystem services wetlands provide. An ecosystem service describes the essential process that an ecosystem provides to support life and makes economic activity possible2.

Wetlands services include flood storage, water filtration, trapping of sediment, transformation of toxins, shoreline protection, improved air quality by the trapping of carbon, and noise abatement. Without wetlands, our quality of life and well-being are greatly compromised. Land and water are interconnected by of wetlands. Degradation of any of these ecosystems may have powerful negative effects on the services provided by the others. We must understand these connections if we are to ably manage these ecosystems.

Wetland scientists are studying ways to reconnect degraded wetlands to their terrestrial and aquatic neighbors. For example, ecological engineers have proposed restoring up to 52,000 km2 of wetlands along the Mississippi River to reduce the excess nitrogen pouring to the Gulf of Mexico and the resulting hypoxia3. It is ironic that after years of ignoring and destroying our wetlands, we have found that these “scary” swamps may ultimately improve our lives, economies and the planet!

Green Things You Can Do

You can be a good neighbor to a wetland by practicing the following environmentally-sensitive activities to decrease the amount of nutrients, pollutants, and sediment that enter a wetland:

  • If you live near a wetland, establish adjacent strips of native vegetation
  • Use chemicals sparingly
  • Don’t dump on (or in) your wetland
  • Share your land with wildlife
  • Keep your pets out of wild areas
  • Maintain your septic system
  • Control non-native plant species

1 Mitsch, W.J. and J.G. Gosselink, 2007. Wetlands, 4th ed. John Wiley & Sons.
2 Withgott, J.H. and S. Brennan. 2009. The Essential Environment: The Science Behind the Stories. 3rd edition. Pearson/Benjamin Cummings Press.
3 Mitsch, W.J., J.W. Day, Jr., J.W. Gilliam, P.M. Groffman, D.L. Hey, G.W. Randall, and N. Wang. 2001. Reducing nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River Basin: Strategies to counter a persistent ecological problem. BioScience 51(5):373-388

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