As a country, we have misused and misunderstood our wetlands over the past century. Today, each and everyone of us can help save them. Here is what we can do to help:
There isn't a comprehensive and universally-accepted definition of a wetland, but there are many ideas as to what that definition should include. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (for the purposes of the Clean Water Act) defines wetlands as "those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions."
One of the reasons wetlands are hard to define is that not all natural communities that are considered wetlands are the same. To be called a wetland, an area must be filled or soaked with water at least part of the year, with some wetlands being dry at certain times of the year. There are several types of wetlands that differentiate in climate, topography, geology, nutrients and hydrology. Marshes, swamps, bogs and fens are all kinds of wetlands with all kinds of differences in structure, vegetation and wildlife. While we may never have a definite definition to what wetlands are, we should all know how necessary they are to our communities.
Wetlands are incredibly valuable and productive ecosystems. Their functions benefit society in a number of ways; fish and wildlife habitat, shoreline erosion protection and recreational outlets, just to name a few. Wetlands support a rich array of plants and animals which have adapted to life in saturated of flooded conditions. In fact, more than a third of America ’s threatened and endangered species live in wetlands. Without healthy wetlands, this species can be lost to us forever.
These species aren’t the only ones that need healthy wetlands. Humans rely on wetlands to naturally improve our water's quality and to store floodwater. Think of wetlands as large sponges. They absorb large amounts of water and filter out any chemicals and nutrients from fertilizers before releasing it back into the land. The plants and natural bacteria found in a wetland can break up chemicals and make them less harmful to man and the environment. It then slowly releases the water back into the ground, allowing the water to replenish nearby aquifers and provide storage for floodwater.
Flood control is another important function of the wetland. According to the Indiana Wetlands Conservation Plan's paper, The Status of Wetlands in Indiana, wetlands "reduce the danger of flooding during peak water flow, when potential flood damage is highest." This is done by their ability to store excessive amounts of water, and then releasing it slowly over a longer periods of time. Without a healthy wetland, flood water may not have a place to go, and could be forced to rush the excess water into nearby lakes and rivers.
Unfortunately, we Hoosiers understand the destruction and heartache floods can cause a community. Recent floods have taught us that nature shows no mercy. In order to help protect ourselves, we have to help protect the environment that serves us. The threats to our remaining wetlands - and the communities that can benefit them - are great, but together we can work to save and protect them.
Half of our world's natural wetlands have been destroyed in the past one hundred years. According to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, wetlands covered 25% of Indiana in the early 1700s. By the late 1980s over 4.7 million acres - or 85% of our wetlands - had been lost. Most of our wetlands were lost due to drainage for agricultural production, but commercial and residential development, road building, groundwater extraction and water pollution are also to blame. Our current over-use of fresh water resources and projected future increases pose serious threats – not only to the continued maintenance and functioning of wetland ecosystems and their biological diversity, but to the essence of human well-being.
Indiana's is taking the loss of our wetlands seriously. Aside from the environmental impacts, wetlands host a number of natural goods and activities that support our economy and quality of life. For instance, fish and shellfish, blueberries, cranberries, timber, wild rice and certain medicines are derived from wetland soils and plants. Recreational activities - such as boating, fishing, hunting and birdwatching - that take place on our wetlands benefit our well-being and economy as well. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's suggests that Indiana wetland habitats generate more than a million user days of nonconsumptive recreation each year. Several government and non-profit agencies are working together to protect our wetlands from further destruction. The following are just a few programs we are working with:
Together, these organizations and the citizens of our great state can make a difference in the future of our wetlands. As wetlands contribute to our health, economy, quality of life and the well being of the natural environment, we should play our part in protecting them.