The Beauty of Wetlands

By Monks, Vicki | National Wildlife, June-July 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Beauty of Wetlands

Monks, Vicki, National Wildlife

OUT ON THE OKLAHOMA prairie where land is mostly dry, most people would define "wetland" as a swampy place, full of ducks and waving marsh grasses. That had been my impression until one stormy spring evening years ago, when a rushing stream more than a foot deep abruptly materialized in the living room of my Oklahoma City home. A parcel of soggy lowland in an older development had been filled to make room for more houses. Mine had been built on the fill. Looking at my yard most times of the year, the term wetland would not have come readily to mind. No creeks flowed nearby, and the red clay fill frequently baked dry and cracked in the heat. But during heavy rains the water always came back.

Back then, in the 1970s, thousands of prairie wetlands like this one were being filled to make way for agriculture or development. Scientists understood by then that even small, isolated wetlands served important purposes, trapping sediment and pollutants, and holding rainwater for slow release, making western rivers less prone to flooding. But government policy was slow in catching up with the science, and it wasn't until several years after the 1977 reauthorization of the federal Clean Water Act that serious wetlands protection enforcement began.

Today, scientists understand far more about wetlands. Hydrologists can explain why wetland soils are unsuitable for building and how displacing water from wetlands affects neighboring property. Researchers are better able to calculate how much runoff various types of wetlands will absorb, and how many acres of those wetlands are needed to avoid catastrophic floods.

Much more is known about how wetlands cleanse pollutants from groundwater, and why these damp areas are prime habitat for wildlife. Scientists even know, as Louisiana biologist V.W. Lambou documented, how many tons of crawfish will grow in each square mile of seasonally flooded bottomland hardwood wetlands, and how much those wetland-dependent species are worth to the economy. But at the same time science is advancing our understanding of the functions of wetlands and their benefits to society, Congress is moving to rescind wetlands protections.

If the 104th Congress carries through on changes in laws already approved by the House of Representatives, as much as 95 percent of the remaining U.S. wetlands could be opened for development. According to EPA assistant administrator Robert Perciasepe, if legislation is approved, most prairie potholes, vernal pools, playa lakes and streamside riparian zones, as well as large portions of the Everglades, would no longer be considered wetlands.

The impetus for these changes comes largely from property-rights advocates who believe that federal wetlands rules have gone too far. As property-rights spokesman James Burling said in testimony before a Senate subcommitte last year, "Every landowner with a damp spot on a vacant lot risks federal prison for building a home."

Listening to Burling and others ridicule the efforts of federal officials to protect even those wetlands that are frequently dry, I kept thinking of my long-ago flooded home, and the recent experiences of Pennsylvania residents like Marlene Freeman, who unwittingly bought homes constructed on or near filled wetlands and who subsequently had to contend with cracked foundations, collapsed walls and mudslides.

"Last year when the snow melted the water came in so fast it was like a fire hydrant," Freeman says. "I always knew that wetlands were important ecologically, but I never realized the impact they had on everything else. When you fill wetlands and put houses on them, there's no place for the water to go but into roads and people's homes."

Ed Perry, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), has collected photos of Pennsylvania houses sinking into wetlands, and new foundations filling up with water. "The irony of all of this is that it's the wetlands that look the least like wetlands that are the greatest threat to a homeowner's investment," Perry says.

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