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Wetlands
Credit: NPL - Mark Hamblin

Wetlands

Call to action:

Protect and restore wetlands, one of the most important, threatened, and under-appreciated ecosystems on earth.

Wetlands are the unsung heroes of the natural world. They provide food, fresh water, and livelihoods for 3 billion people and habitat for 40 percent of all wildlife species. They are found on every continent except Antarctica. They can be freshwater or saline, seasonal or permanent, inland or coastal. Wetlands filter pollution, buffer droughts, and protect against floods. They are highly efficient at storing carbon in soils, particularly coastal wetlands, which can sequester ten times more carbon than tropical forests. Wetlands are disappearing faster than any other type of ecosystem. Sixty percent have been lost worldwide and the remainder are being impacted by rising temperatures, bigger storms, and prolonged drought amplified by climate change. Wetlands are well studied. We know how to restore and protect them and must do so with urgency.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn what wetlands are, where they are located, and why they are needed. Far from the insect-infested swamps of popular imagination, wetlands exist in a wide variety of types, shapes, and sizes. Any area of land that is saturated with water for a period of time could be a wetland. Divided between inland and coastal types, wetlands include fens, bogs, moors, marshes, muskegs, quagmires, mudflats, potholes, vernal pools, cienegas, playas, sloughs, bayous, peatlands, deltas, and mangrove forests. Wetlands can be found above the Arctic Circle, deep in the tropics, high in the mountains, along coasts, in arid lands, and in the heart of cities. They can be as small as an acre or as big as the 70,000 square-mile Pantanal in South America. Here are ten important wetlands. Here are the ten largest in the world. The essential ecosystem services they provide include:

Learn why wetlands are threatened. Many types of human activities imperil wetlands. Major threats include:

Take action to protect wetlands. A wetland may exist downstream from where you live, in your neighborhood or community, on public lands nearby, or another place known to you. Here are some things that you can do:

  • Use nontoxic products. Household cleaning, lawn, garden, and medicinal products need to be free of chemicals that harm wetlands and aquatic life. Dispose responsibly. Do not pour any down a drain unless the product is known to be safe. Use nonnitrogen lawn supplements.
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle your trash. Landfills can be a source of contaminants that end up in wetlands. Avoid using bleached paper, which contains toxic chemicals that can contaminate water.
  • Conserve water. Many wetlands, especially seasonal ones, depend on a limited supply of fresh water. There are many ways to conserve water at home. Use only as much as you need. Check your pipes and fittings regularly for any leakages. During the summer months, water your plants early in the morning. Install rain barrels.
  • Clean up. Keep sidewalks, lawns, and driveways clear of pet waste, trash, toxic chemicals, fertilizers, and motor oil—all of which can wash into storm drains and end up in wetlands.
  • Plant trees, shrubs, and flowers that are native to where you live. If you’re planning to install a garden or landscaping, do research to see which plants are native to your area and can support wetland health by reducing the threat of invasive species (see Eating Plants Nexus).
  • Flag illegal clearing or dumping activity. In many parts of the world, wetlands are protected areas, which means it is a violation to dump waste, excavate soil, unload dirt, or otherwise harm them. Talk to the person committing the violation, if possible. Report the damage to the appropriate local or state authorities. Here is information from the EPA on reporting.
  • Attend local planning meetings that involve wetlands. In many places, proposed impacts to a wetland must go through a permitting process. Most of these decisions are discussed in public meetings. Let officials know that you don’t support building on wetlands.
  • Purchase federal duck stamps (U.S.). Duck stamps are required for hunting but can be purchased for conservation. The money raised is used to benefit wildfowl habitat, including wetlands acquisition and protection.
  • Participate in World Wetlands Day (February 2). This is an annual event sponsored by the United Nations to call awareness to wetlands. In 2022, there were over 1,400 events, including lectures, meetings, tours, bird walks, restoration work, and student activities.
  • Visit a wetland. Many outdoor public spaces, parks, and nature reserves have wetlands. Be respectful.

Join or volunteer with a local wetland protection organization or project. If you live near a wetland, consider supporting nonprofit organizations devoted to protecting the area.

Join a campaign and/or make a donation to organizations that protect and restore wetlands. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play a critical role in the defense of wetlands around the world. Supporting these organizations with a donation or membership is vital to their success (see Key Players).

Get trained and/or earn an education certificate in wetlands restoration. Programs include:

Speak up. Write an op-ed to a newspaper or social media site advocating for the protection and restoration of wetlands, particularly as a climate change solution, such as this one. Consider writing longer pieces for online sites such as Medium, like this one about ecological restoration.

  • Emphasize the many ecological benefits of wetlands, like this op-ed.
  • Here is one about the value of coastal wetlands.
  • Here is one about the role of wetlands in cities.

Groups

Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Landowners

Understand the regulations and laws regarding wetlands where you live. In the U.S., 75 percent of all wetlands are privately owned. For some, the regulation of wetlands by government agencies has been a source of dispute and legal conflict, but for many others it is a matter of understanding the process.

  • In the U.S., regulatory obligations start with Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Here is a primer from the EPA. Wetlands may fall into a category called Waters of the World, which involves regulations that governs bodies of water and “navigable” streams, under the jurisdiction of the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These regulations are the source of ongoing legal review; check here for developments.
  • Here is a Factsheet on wetlands from the EPA.
  • Here is a history of wetlands protection in the U.S. In 1956, Circular 39 was published by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, introducing the term “wetland” to the public. Here is a legal history of wetlands legislation.
  • Here is a summary of federal wetland policies and programs.
  • For agricultural producers, wetland regulations were implemented in the 1985 Farm Bill, which discouraged the conversion of wetlands. Here is a primer from the USDA on wetlands compliance for agricultural production on private land. Here is additional information from the EPA.
  • Know the three attributes that indicate the presence of wetlands: (1) the plants are predominantly hydrophytes, which only grow in or near water; (2) the substrate soil is predominantly hydric, which is soil formed as a result of frequent flooding or ponding; and (3) the area is wet or covered by water at some point each year.
  • Explore wetland location databases, such as the National Wetlands Inventory (U.S.).

Protect and restore wetlands. If you have wetlands on your property, including coastal wetlands, view their protection and restoration as an opportunity to help a critical ecosystem that benefits us all.

  • In the U.S., if you suspect you might have wetlands on your property and intend to impact it, you must get a professional wetland delineation survey done first. This formal assessment establishes the location and size of a wetland for purposes of complying with the Clean Water Act and other federal, state, and local regulations.
  • If you have a wetland, maintain a buffer strip of native plants along the streambanks and wetland edges. A buffer will stabilize the streambank, prevent erosion, and improve the health of the land in general.
  • Do not use pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers in agricultural practices since they are likely to accumulate in the wetland.
  • Avoid and/or replace nonnative and invasive species of plants, as they are likely to adversely impact native wetland species.
  • Do not dump trash or chemical waste in areas where they might eventually migrate into wetlands.
  • Keep stormwater runoff as clean as possible by removing any substance that might pollute a wetland as a result of a flood or storm event.
  • If necessary, consider mitigating the loss of your wetland by restoring a degraded wetland somewhere else or by creating a bank of new wetlands. Mitigation banks can be on your land or someone else’s. In the U.S., a regulating authority, such as the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, must give its approval prior to any mitigation activity.
  • Rewilding private wetlands could be an investment opportunity.
  • Implement creek and riparian area restoration on your property. Let the Water Do the Work by riparian specialist Bill Zeedyk is a manual on how to harness the regenerative power of moving water to reshape stream banks, rebuild floodplains, and restore wetlands. A multiyear wet-meadow restoration project in the Gunnison Valley of western Colorado featuring Zeedyk’s work has successfully “rewetted” many acres of wildlife habitat. Here is an online guide to riparian restoration planning.

Join a collaborative restoration effort or a watershed group. There are regional, multistakeholder groups in the U.S. that include or feature agricultural producers in restoration activities. Some examples include:

City and County/State/Federal Land Managers

Stop the loss of wetland habitat in cities and on county, state, and federal land and restore as many wetlands as possible. Although jurisdiction for wetland protection mainly falls to the federal government in many nations, local governments have an important role to play in protecting wetlands.

  • The improper construction and maintenance of public roads and bridges can interfere with natural water patterns, damaging wetlands.
  • Beavers often create wetlands with their dams and ponds. Their presence can complicate things for land managers, including road and bridge repair and maintenance, as well as flood management. There are many options for coexistence with beavers (see Beavers Nexus).
  • If the destruction of a wetland is necessary for a larger community benefit, scientifically constructed wetlands can be used to balance or offset the loss. These are ecologically engineered projects involving soils, plants, and water retention structures that mimic the function of natural wetlands. Constructed wetlands are also useful for wastewater treatment and often need state or municipal funding to implement. Here is information from the EPA on constructed wetlands.

Governance

Governments must implement policies that are wetland-friendly. In recent years, the continued loss of wetlands has prompted many governments around the world to implement incentives to encourage wetlands protection and restoration to augment regulations.

Learn

Read

Wetlands by William Mitsch and James Gosselink (5th edition)

About Habitats: Wetlands by Cathryn and John Sill

Wetland Carbon and Environmental Management edited by Ken W. Krauss, Zhiliang Zu, and Camille L. Stagg

Let the Water Do the Work by Bill Zeedyk and Van Clothier

Florida’s Wetlands by Ellie Whitney, Bruce Means, and Anne Rudloe

Salt Marshes: A Natural and Unnatural History by Judith Weis and Carol Butler

Ramsar Wetlands: Values, Assessment, Management edited by Peter Gell, Nick Davidson, and Max Finlayson (not yet published)

Marshes and Swamps! With 25 Science Projects for Kids by J. K. O’Sullivan and Tom Casteel

Fun in the Mud: A Wetlands Tale by Sally Bolger and Regina Shklovsky

Global Wetland Outlook: A Special Report 2021 by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

Goodreads list of books about wetlands

Listen

Ducks Unlimited Podcast​​​​​​​

Ecobot Podcast (technology & wetlands science)

Interviews with Daniel Goldfarb, author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, here and here.

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