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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