Wetlands do triple duty to protect people and the environment

Rebecca Shaw

Beyond their beauty, wetlands provide countless services on which wildlife, coastal communities and the world at large depend. They protect us from storms, filter our drinking water, protect wildlife and even help sequester carbon.

World Wetlands Day serves as a reminder to all of us that these precious areas need better protection. Here are three key reasons why:

1. Wetlands buffer coastal communities

Countless coastal communities around the globe rely on wetlands to act as the first line of defense against storms, floods and other environmental threats. The loss of wetlands in places such as the Mississippi River Delta thus poses a huge threat to the region.

Degraded wetlands in coastal Louisiana left New Orleans vulnerable to hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Just five years later, the BP oil spill devastated the coast once again.

The result has been dramatic changes to the local economy, in addition to wildlife and habitat loss.

Fortunately, the state of Louisiana is addressing this problem head-on, and Environmental Defense Fund has been working with local officials and other stakeholders to use the river’s powerful land-building force to rebuild wetlands and restore the coast.

2. Wetlands improve water quality

Wetlands also play a critical role as natural water filters, capturing fertilizer-polluted run-off from agricultural fields that contaminate drinking water.

In addition, such pollution contributes to hypoxic or “dead” zones in lakes, estuaries and coastal waters worldwide where low oxygen concentration causes marine life to suffocate and die.

Freshwater wetlands upstream can prevent dead zones and improve water quality by capturing and filtering fertilizer pollution before it makes its way into waterways.

By strategically placing wetlands on less than 1 percent of the region’s croplands, we’ll be able to reverse the significant losses in aquatic life and improve flood resiliency for downstream communities.

Added benefits for farmers include flood and drought-proofing.

3. Wetlands sustain vulnerable fish and wildlife

Wetlands provide valuable habitat to hundreds of thousands of fish and bird species worldwide.

In the Colorado River Delta, the wetlands of the Ciénega de Santa Clara make up 40,000 acres of vegetation and wildlife habitat for endangered birds such as the Yuma clapper rail.

Scientists estimate that up to 7,000 of these birds live in the Ciénega, about three-quarters of the global population.

But the Ciénega and the greater Colorado River Delta region face a future of uncertain water supplies.

Here at EDF, we’ve been working for more than a decade to protect environmental flows for the Colorado River Delta. We achieved a historic victory in 2014 when a pulse of water was released into the dry river delta, rejuvenating this great desert wetland.

On World Wetlands Day 2015, we celebrate these victories while keeping our sleeves rolled up. Wetlands still need our help.

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Three big victories are in reach this year and we can’t do it without you »

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Preserve nature, habitat, wildlife, natural arrangement of things is to preserve the environment in which we are born and develop. It should be our first priority, respect the environment that guarantees our own survival....

February 3, 2015 at 6:20 pm

This is a very interesting [blog post]. I work with the hydrology of the Cienega de Santa Clara wetland, and I know the importance of this ecosystem.

Marcelo A Lomeli
February 3, 2015 at 10:41 pm

Hi Rebecca, very interesting. I never imagined that wetlands were so important to ecosystems..Thanks for sharing.

February 4, 2015 at 5:55 am

We should be careful about characterizing wetlands as being "of service" to humanity. These are impeccably balanced ecosystems. The recognition that natural wetlands have the capability to filter impurities from water has led to a proliferation of proposals to divert sewerage wastewater in the marshes of south Louisiana. This is a horribly bad idea.

Chris McLindon
February 4, 2015 at 12:19 pm

Chris – I absolutely agree with your comment and did not intend to characterize wetlands in this way. Just because wetlands can filter impurities does not mean that we should intentionally contaminate our water and let wetlands do all of the work for us. They cannot do all of the work for us. We need to do our part by working to reduce impurities before they reach our waterways.

EDF is trying to do exactly this by working with farmers to improve fertilizer efficiency and reduce runoff from farms. We have set an aggressive goal to end fertilizer pollution as a major environmental concern.

Rebecca Shaw
February 5, 2015 at 10:08 am

In reply to by Chris McLindon

Thanks for the reply. I know that your piece was very well-intentioned, and I should have made that clear. If you would like to pursue this recent development of sewage waste water "assimilation" projects in Louisiana, I would be happy to work with you on it. The real problem is that they are being funded as "mitigation bank" projects, and well-meaning private investors end up funding projects that they believe are doing good for the environment when they are actually discharging sewage into coastal wetlands.

Chris McLindon
February 7, 2015 at 8:32 pm

In reply to by rshaw

It's important to clarify this concept, because humans tend to adapt reality to their own benefit. If we say that wetlands have the ability to self-generate, we will have many people stop worrying about them because "at the end, they are self-regenerating...so why worry about them?"

Here in Venice, Italy, we have spent many years watching people exploit the environment for their own benefit, and the level of the degradation is important to acknowledge...

February 6, 2015 at 2:04 am

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