Photo by Carolyn Fortuna/ CleanTechnica

How Can We Make Way For Water? By Restoring Wetlands

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While I was working myself through college, I had a multiple income boss whose endeavors included a small construction company. He felt empowered to cut nearly any corner to boost profits. One day he complained about local regulations that prohibited him from filling in wetlands behind a property he was trying to flip. “What good are they?” he moaned. “Just a buncha mud and water. Should be able to put ’em to good use.”

That “good use” meant to further human efforts. What my boss didn’t know then is that wetlands are hard at work as they filter water, protect coastal communities from floods, provide habitat for fish and other wildlife, and so much more. Wetlands support important benefits — called ecosystem services — that impact our day-to-day lives.

They absolutely help humans, and, in order to protect them, it’s time we recognize the role that wetlands play in the health of our planet.

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Why Should We Care About Wetlands?

A wetland is an area of land that is saturated with water and characterized by plants that can tolerate wet soils​ and low oxygen levels at their roots. Wetlands are a wonder of nature. They mitigate the impacts of sea level rise. They reduce coastal erosion. They act as a sponge as they absorb flood waters. They store carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Wetlands are multifunctional systems performing as nature-based solutions for water management. Wetlands act as natural water purifiers, filtering sediment and absorbing pollution:

  • By trapping and filtering impurities, wetlands reduce levels of contaminants in surface waters and moderate the adverse water quality impacts of soil erosion, runoff, and wastewater contamination.
  • They provide clean drinking water.
  • Wetlands act as natural sponges, absorbing and temporarily storing floodwaters,
  • Since they serve as barriers to water encroachment, wetlands protect people, property, and infrastructure.

Sustainable water management has become an urgent challenge due to irregular water availability patterns like severe storms with lots of rain and water quality issues like nutrient overloads and increased wastewater.  Wetlands play an important role in reducing surface runoff and streamflow, attenuating peak flows, and retarding flow velocity — all of which contribute to flood mitigation.

In other words, wetlands are characterized by complex processes of fill and spill.

The 100-year global warming potential of wetlands during the period 1990–2022 increased by 57% in response to an average temperature increase of 1.5–2.0 °C. A widely accepted fact is that protecting, preserving, and restoring wetlands is a sound investment in green infrastructure, and they must be protected as nature-based climate solutions for future generations.

Coastal Communities & Wetlands

Coastal communities are particularly indebted to wetlands. Their protection saves vulnerable coastal communities $23 billion each year. Many coastal wetlands have been identified as “essential fish habitat,” indicating an increased urgency and value in protecting these areas.

As part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to conserve and restore coastal wetlands, the Service is awarding $10.8 million to support 12 projects in seven coastal states to protect, restore or enhance over 2,000 acres of coastal wetlands and adjacent upland habitats under the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program.

Salt marshes, seagrass beds, and mangroves play an important role in addressing climate change by removing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing them in plants and in the soil. Coastal blue carbon is the term used for carbon that is stored in these coastal habitats. Efforts to conserve coastal habitats play an important role in preserving coastal blue carbon, preventing the release of carbon into the atmosphere, and reducing the effects of climate change.

During Hurricane Sandy, for example, wetlands protected areas of the East Coast from more than $625 million in direct flood damages. But the continued loss of coastal wetlands means less protection for coastal communities from the impacts of strong storms.

Case Study: From Wetlands to Cranberry Bog & Back Again

Cranberries are native to New England and have been commercially grown since the 1800s. Over one-quarter of US cranberries are still grown there. Yet a warmer climate and increased competition from Wisconsin and Canada meant that cranberry farms began to fail over the last decade, and, instead of letting the abandoned bogs go fallow, as the Boston Globe reported, cranberry farmers in Massachusetts agreed to massive excavation projects in which cranberry bogs are once and future wetlands. The state promoted the program as a green exit strategy for struggling farmers, who are mostly accepting the option.

After the first few months of digging up the bog, the skeleton of an ancient wetlands ecosystem starts to take shape in the thick, black muck. With the sand and ditches removed, peat is soaking wet, and the treasured seeds of grasses and shrubs that are needed to regrow the former wetlands start to awaken. They’ve been present all along, just lying dormant underground for more than 100 years.

“Once you bring them to the surface and bring back the right conditions, like water and sunlight, they explode back into healthy wetlands,” said Jessica Cohn, ecological restoration specialist at the Division of Ecological Restoration, which is part of the state’s Fish and Game agency.

The newest example is a former 231-acre organic cranberry bog on Nantucket that is being converted — actually, returned — to a wetland state for $3 million, supported by a $1 million grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The ocean waters off the coast of New England are among the fastest warming on the planet, and Massachusetts’ coastline is experiencing among the fastest rates of sea level rise in the world. Scientists say that it’s likely a nearby salt marsh will migrate inland as the ocean rises. By holding back some of the floodwaters and slowing the rate that water enters a river or stream, wetlands can reduce the severity of downstream flooding and erosion.

Right now, Massachusetts has finished 6 cranberry bog projects and has another 18 wetland restoration projects to go. Altogether, the cranberry bog restorations should encompass more than 800 acres.

Community-Based Wetlands Restoration

A community-centric approach in wetland restoration has gained momentum globally. Engaging local communities in the restoration process enhances ownership and responsibility respects the traditional ecological knowledge of local communities, combining it with scientific expertise for effective restoration and conservation.

In community-driven initiatives, residents actively participate in the preservation and restoration of wetlands. Awareness campaigns, training programs, and capacity-building initiatives can equip communities with the tools needed to understand the importance of wetlands and engage in their restoration. By involving local stakeholders, restoration efforts become more sustainable and tailored to the specific needs of the community. Incentives such as sustainable ecotourism, organic farming, and responsible fishing practices preserve wetlands and provide alternative livelihood options for communities dependent on these ecosystems.

A study by the World Bank estimates that the economic value of wetlands is approximately $47 trillion annually. Their restoration is crucial and, yet, while degraded wetlands can be restored, the complex interrelationships between wetland vegetation and their unique soils and water have evolved on site for millennia. It’s impossible to fully replicate that symbiosis within our lifetime, yet we must attempt to do so in order to return more of the Earth’s hydrological processes to their original state.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

Carolyn Fortuna has 1315 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna