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2009-11-12 digital edition

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2009-11-12 / General Stories

Benefits of Wetlands

Wetlands have long been considered worthless and an impediment to development. They have been drained and filled to make way for houses, roads, and farmland. In the United States more than fifty percent of our original wetlands have been lost due to development. Although we continue to lose wetlands, the rate of loss is decreasing. People are starting to discover how valuable wetlands are to our existence.

Wetlands are often called the “nurseries of life”, providing sanctuary for thousands of aquatic and terrestrial animals. Migratory birds use wetlands as nesting sites year after year. One third of our nation’s endangered species call wetlands their permanent homes, while half utilize them at some point in their life cycle. Wetlands are an essential link in the world’s food chain. As such, wetlands are home to aquatic plants, recreational and commercial shellfish and fish as well as other wildlife. There is tremendous diversity in the kinds of wildlife and habitat found in wetlands, because they contain both moist soil and water where numerous species lay their eggs.

Wetlands provide numerous recreational opportunities for millions of people. More than half of all United States adults hunt, fish, bird watch, or photograph wildlife. These activi- ties which rely on healthy wetlands, added an esti- mated $59.5 million to the national economy in 1991. Individual states likewise gain economic benefits from recreation opportunities in wetlands that attract visitors from other states.

Wetlands improve water quality by acting as a filter to pollutants. Wetlands can help improve water quality by removing or retaining nu- trients, organics, and sediment carried by runoff. The flow of water slows as it enters a wetland, which causes sediment in the water to settle out. Many chemicals, fertilizers, human and household wastes, toxic compounds are tied to sediment and trapped in wetlands. Plants and the biological processes present in a wetland breakdown and convert these pollutants into less harmful substances. By restoring and utilizing wetland functions, we can reduce the cost of constructing, operating and maintaining drinking water treatment plants.

Wetland vegetation reduces erosion along lakes and stream banks by reducing forces associated with wave action. Wetlands can slow runoff water, minimizing the frequency streams and rivers reach catastrophic flood levels. Wetlands also reduce flooding by acting as water storage reservoirs.

Some wetlands serve as a source of ground water recharge. By detaining surface waters that would otherwise quickly flow to distant lake or rivers, the water can percolate into the ground and help ensure long-term supplies of quality ground water. Some wetlands are ground water discharge areas; they receive ground water even during dry periods. This helps reduce the impact of short-term droughts on rivers and streams.

Vegetated riparian wetlands in agricultural areas have proven to remove high percentages of phosphorous and nitrogen from runoff water. Without these wetlands, increased nutrient loading to rivers, streams and lakes could result in algal blooms and over-abundant aquatic plant growth. When these algae and plants die, oxygen in the water is used during the decomposition process. This can result in oxygen deprivation which may lead to fish kills.

Wetlands were long regarded as wastelands but are now recognized as important features in the landscape that provide benefits for people and other animals. Wetlands are home to an abundant variety of plants, water bugs, reptiles, birds, fish frogs and mammals. Wetlands are considered to be “biological supermarkets”. They are among the most productive environments in the world and form a link between our land and water resources. Without wetlands, we can expect an increase in flooding, decrease of animal, plant and bird species, increase in erosion, decrease in water quality, and lost revenue.

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