Wetlands: Part One. What are they and why are they so important?

Wetlands

Wetlands: Part One.  What are they and why are they so important?

Our environmental work for clients often includes issues related to wetlands, yet many people do not know what they are, why they are so important or how they are regulated.  This blog entry talks about what wetlands are and the crucial role they play in the environment.

So what, exactly, is a wetland?  In our common experience, wetlands might be called swamps or marshes or even bogs.  Basically, wetlands are transition areas between uplands and aquatic habitats.  While wetlands vary widely depending on geography, there are two general categories: tidal wetlands and non-tidal wetlands.  Tidal wetlands are along the coast and non-tidal wetlands are inland.

Does the presence of standing water mean that an area is a wetland?  Maybe.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains that “wetlands are areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season.”  Note that standing water may not be present year round in a wetland—so if you do not see standing water in a possible wetland area, this does not mean the area is not a wetland.  Some wetlands have standing water only during certain times of the year.  This is a crucial fact to keep in mind before disturbing any area that may be located in a possible wetland.

Wetlands indisputably play a crucial role in the environment.  The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which enforces state wetlands regulations, identifies six critical roles that wetlands provide:

  • Flood and Storm Water Control

This is one of the more important roles that wetlands play.  Wetlands mitigate flood and storm water flow by absorbing, storing, and slowing down the movement of rain and melt water.  They are a natural and important flood control measure.

  • Surface and Groundwater Protection

Wetlands help maintain base flow in streams and rivers and support ponds and lakes. They also can help recharge groundwater supplies.  Wetlands also improve water quality by absorbing pollutants and reducing turbidity.

  • Erosion Control

Because wetlands slow water velocity and filter sediments, they act as a natural form of erosion control for adjacent waterbodies.  They also buffer shorelines and agricultural soils from water erosion.

  • Pollution Treatment and Nutrient Cycling

Wetlands are natural filters of sorts.  They cleanse water by filtering out natural and many manmade pollutants, which are then broken down or immobilized.  They also break down organic materials, which are recycled back into the environment, where they support the food chain.

  • Fish and Wildlife Habitat

Wetlands are a critically important habitat for fish and wildlife.  Many species—including endangered species—use wetlands for feeding, nesting, spawning, resting and cover.  Wetlands help achieve and foster this biodiversity.

  • Public Enjoyment

Wetlands provide the opportunity for public enjoyment and recreation, including hunting, fishing, boating, environmental education, interpretation and photography.

So knowing what wetlands are and how important they are to the environment, it should come as no surprise that wetlands are legally protected federally and by the state.  Just what those protections are—and how they might affect development—will be the topic of our next blog entry.

Picture: kepp.net

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