Earth News Journal 36: United States Wetland Loss

According to a recent study funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the United States’ wetlands are suffering from multiple threats, most notably from coastal development and intensive tropical storms.

The study, led by Tom Dahl and co-author Susan-Marie Stedman of the NOAA, concluded that the U.S. has suffered losses of more than 360,000 acres of freshwater and saltwater wetlands in a four-year increment (2004 to 2009).

Nearly 60,000 acres of wetlands was lost in the Chesapeake Bay region of Maryland alone, primarily due to the area’s population growth and farming expanses. Other areas of concern include the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, and the Great Lakes region, according to the article published on The Washington Post website in December of 2013.

The loss of wetlands has been occurring within the country for several decades now, thanks in part to the rapid expansion of the human population along the coast. After an “explosion of coastal residential and business development,” water is drained from the wetland or filled with dirt for “agriculture, parking lots, housing, and retail store” purposes. Once drainage occurs, the little surviving wetlands are hit with an onslaught of rainwater runoff “pouring from newly built surfaces such as driveways and roads.”

The remaining swamps cannot handle the deluge, and as a result, many lands are suffocated from heavily polluted runoff waters.

Wetlands are a critical ecosystem component, serving as sea-surge buffers, storm-water soakers, nurseries for numerous aquatic species, and a habitat for three-quarters of the nation’s waterfowl and migrating birds. “You lose places for those organisms to breed, feed, rest,” Dahl said. “You’re losing some capability for other environmental functions like filtering pollutants, providing some protection from storm damage… You’re affecting hydrology. The areas are no longer able to retain water. The hydrology is changing, and we don’t recognize what the full implications are.”

Sea-level rises are also a concern for wetland regions across the country’s coasts, and Steven Bunker of the Nature Conservancy of Maryland fears that “wetlands will not be able to keep pace” with the increase in sea levels.

Reflection

I, as well, fear for the safety of America’s wetland regions. As construction and development began along the United States’ eastern coast several decades ago, I feel as if the impact of strategically-placed wetland regions was vastly unknown; the early settlers squandered the lands designated as wetlands, for lack of understanding. Now, we know the implications of such wetlands and the vital role they play in balancing aquatic ecosystems. Yet developers continue to wring these lands dry, draining the area of its life-giving waters in favor of tarmac and asphalt. It seems obvious to me that if a land were filled with swampy marshes before man conquered it, the water was there for a reason. Perhaps to sustain life, perhaps to serve as a saltwater blockade for the many freshwater ecosystems lining coastal entrances. Who is man to decide how the Earth should be designed? Man is an inhabitant of nature, not the commandant.