What to Know About Wetlands and Their Benefits to the Environment

by Giselle Chollett

American Wetlands Month has been celebrated every May for the last 30 years. It was created by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help educate people about the vital role of these natural areas that function as resources that benefit our ecological, economic, and social health.  Here’s what to know about wetlands their benefits to the environment.

Wetlands are one of nature’s most productive ecosystems since they help provide a habit to fish, wildlife, and plants. They also support groundwater recharging, mitigate natural disasters, provide clean drinking water, offer food to a diverse group of plants and animals, and support cultural and recreational activities. According to the EPA, wetlands are links between land and water, where the flow of water, the cycling of nutrients, and the sun’s energy meet to produce a unique ecosystem characterized by hydrology. If wetlands disappear, the effects will impact the quality of water, the populations of fish and birds, and societies will experience an increase in floods.

With the multiple challenges that wetlands face –from climate change to sea level rise, drainage and excavation– American Wetlands Month is a reminder of the importance of learning about wetlands, and the need to protect these lands that currently cover 5.5% of the land in the 48 contiguous states. The EPA website says that an estimated 95% of these wetlands are freshwater; the rest are marine or estuarine.

Wetlands are determined by how they are formed, the varieties of plants that live there, and their location. In the U.S., most wetlands are in Minnesota, Florida, and Louisiana due to the climate of those locations. The EPA dedicated site for wetlands shows two general categories of wetlands: coastal or tidal wetlands and inland or non-tidal wetlands. Details below.

Coastal/Tidal:

Found along the Atlantic, Pacific, Alaskan, and Gulf coasts, they are closely linked to our nation’s estuaries, where seawater mixes with fresh water to form an environment of varying salinities. The saltwater and the fluctuating water level (due to tidal action) combine to create a rather complex environment for most plants. Therefore, many shallow coastal areas are unvegetated mudflats or sand flats. Some plants, however, have successfully adapted to this environment. Certain grasses and grass-like plants that adapt to the saline conditions form the tidal salt marshes that are found along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts.

Inland/Non-tidal

They are most commonly found on floodplains along rivers and streams (riparian wetlands), in isolated depressions surrounded by dry land (for example, playas, basins, and “potholes”), along the margins of lakes and ponds, and in other low-lying areas where the groundwater intercepts the soil surface or where precipitation sufficiently saturates the soil (vernal pools and bogs). Inland wetlands include marshes and wet meadows dominated by herbaceous plants, swamps dominated by shrubs, and wooded swamps dominated by trees. Certain types of inland wetlands are common to particular regions of the country.

Also, according to the EPA, wetlands can be influenced by natural and human-induced stressors such as:

  • Hurricanes, sea-level change, and certain agricultural and forestry practices can increase erosion or sedimentation.
  •  Human modifications such as pipes and channels can alter wetland types, elevation, or hydrology.
  • Withdrawal of groundwater or surface waters can reduce the flow of water into wetlands.
  • Pollutants in groundwater and fresh surface waters that flow into wetlands can be toxic to plants and animals, and they can accumulate in wetland sediments.
  • Invasive species can alter the composition of wetland communities.
  • Wetland loss can add stress to remaining wetlands. For example, if fewer wetlands are available to filter pollutants from surface waters, those pollutants could become more concentrated in the remaining wetlands. Wetland loss can also decrease habitat, landscape diversity, and connectivity among aquatic resources.
  • Conversion from one wetland type to another—for example, cutting down trees in forested wetlands—can have a significant ecological impact by changing habitat types and community structure.

To best help protect wetlands, you can follow some of these easy-to-do recommendations.

  1. Plant a buffer strip of native plants, which resist diseases
  2. Eliminate the use of pesticides and fertilizers when working on your lawn
  3. Remove non-native plants and invasive species
  4. Keep your pet waste out of wetlands

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