Benefits of Wetlands

By Jennifer Mu

Politicians love to use “drain the swamp” as a campaign slogan. It’s beyond frustration when I hear on the news the repeated chanting of “drain the swamp” by politicians. Sadly, it perpetuates the popular misconception that swamps are wastelands and of little use. The truth is, swamps, wetlands and coastal estuaries are extremely beneficial. In fact, they are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth.

Wetlands with Great White Herons
Swamp and Wetland Benefits

Freshwater wetlands and swamps and coastal wetlands provide a multitude of benefits. Wetlands enhance the food chain and provide habitat for wildlife. Two-thirds (66.6%) of the fish and shellfish commercially harvested worldwide are linked with wetlands. Swamps also improve water quality. Wetlands filter chemicals and sediment out of nearby rivers and lakes before discharging the water into the ocean.

Swamps also serve as natural flood control barriers. When there is excess water swamps work like a sponge, absorbing much of the water before it reaches farms and urban developments. Saltwater swamps and tidal salt marshes help anchor coastal soil and sand. During hurricanes, coastal wetlands slow down storm surges, weakening the force of the water hitting the shores. Inland, freshwater wetlands soak up torrential rains, moderating the effects of flooding.

Before the enactment of environmental laws to protect wetlands in the 1970s, almost half (50%) of the wetlands in this country disappeared. Most were drained and/or filled in for development.

New Orleans – After Katrina
Katrina’s Lesson

Remember Katrina? The 2005 hurricane destroyed the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida. Katrina claimed 1,800 lives and caused close to $100 billion in damages. New Orleans sustained the worst damage. The scale of the disaster was later attributed to the destruction and disappearance of much of the region’s wetlands.

In New Orleans’ case, the loss of swamps and marshes was largely due to the infamous Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) canal.  This 76-mile canal was an artificial shipping channel built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the mid-20th century.  Its construction destroyed lush, fresh-water cypress swamps, including the 30,000-acre Central Wetlands, which is only 15 minutes away from the city’s French Quarter. Between 1982 and 1992, about 1.6 million acres of wetlands on nonfederal lands were lost; 57 percent (%) of these wetlands were converted into land for development and 20 percent (%) were converted into agriculture land. See more about the MRGO: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_River–Gulf_Outlet_Canal

Coastal wetlands help protect people and buildings
Wetland Restoration

After Katrina, wetland restoration received a renewed focus. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website lists five major coastal wetland protection/restoration programs – Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay Delta Watershed and the National Estuary Program.  The EPA is also partnering with broad coalitions of federal, state and municipal and private nonprofit agencies to implement these programs. See about the EPA’s wetlands initiatives: https://www.epa.gov/wetlands

Sandy’s Lesson

Hurricane Sandy, despite its widespread destruction, demonstrated the benefits of wetland conservation. In 2017, a study found coastal wetlands saved $625 million worth of property damage during 2012 Hurricane. Thus, wetlands reduced the cost of damages by 22 percent (22%) in more than half the zip codes along the East Coast in Sandy’s wake. In sum, wetlands spared hundreds of homes and thousands of miles of roads from more damage.

Trump’s Wetland Policy-Reversal-In-Progress

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has consistently cut funding for these programs since taking office. Trump’s 2019 fiscal year budget would stop funding programs to restore water quality in the Gulf of Mexico, Puget Sound and other large water bodies. Funding for the Chesapeake Bay program would see a 90 percent (90%) reduction, from $72 million to $7 million. A similar 90-percent (90%) cut in the Great Lakes Program  would decrease funding from $300 million to $30 million.

Obviously, such policies run counter to destructive weather events of the past two decades. Hurricanes are more frequent and much more powerful. Additionally, 100-year floods are now the norm. It is vital our government continues to fund the work to protect and restore wetlands.

Courtesy of Rossmoor News, November 14, 2018.  Email Jenifer Mu at barnhartmu8833@gmail.com

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