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WETLANDS





WETLANDS


It is no accident that river valleys and their floodplains have been the focus of human civilizations for over 6,000 years and that many other wetland systems have been equally critical to the development and survival of human communities. This simply reflects the key role that water and wetlands have played throughout human life. Our advancing technological skills may seem to have supplanted the role of Nature, but recent environmental catastrophes - floods, landslides, and storms, many with their roots in unsustainable land use practices - suggest otherwise. The reality is that we still depend on our natural ecosystems to sustain us.

The multiple roles of wetland ecosystems and their value to humanity have been increasingly understood and documented in recent years. This has led to massive expenditures to restore lost or degraded hydrological and biological functions of wetlands. But it's not enough - the race is on to improve practices on a significant global scale as the world's leaders try to cope with the accelerating water crisis and the effects of climate change. This is occurring at a time when the world's population is set to increase by 70 million every year for the next 20 years.

Global freshwater consumption rose six fold between 1900 and 1995 - more than double the rate of population growth. One third of the world's population today lives in countries already experiencing moderate to high water stress. By 2025, two out of every three people on Earth may well face life in water-stressed conditions.

The ability of wetlands to adapt to changing conditions and accelerating rates of change will be crucial to communities and wildlife everywhere as the full impact of climate change on our ecosystem lifelines is felt. Small wonder that there is worldwide focus on wetlands and their services to us.

Wetlands are hugely diverse. But whether they are ponds, marshes, coral reefs, peatlands, lakes, or mangroves, they all share one fundamental feature: the complex interaction of their basic components - soil, water, animals, and plants - that fulfills many functions and provides many products that have sustained humans over the centuries. Of course not every wetland performs all these functions, but most wetlands perform many of them.

Wetlands are the transitional lands between aquatic and terrestrial systems where the water table is at or near the surface of the land. This area is covered by shallow water. To be classified as a wetland, an area must have one or more of the following three attributes:

1. The land supports plants, which are adapted to wet soil conditions. These plants are also known as hydrophytes.

2. The base land is predominantly poorly drained or has hydric soils.

3. Specific hydrology - land that is saturated with water or covered by shallow water at some time during the growing season of every year

Hydrophytic and other plants used to identify wetlands for regulatory purposes are listed in the National List of Plant Species that Occur in Wetlands, Biological Report 88(24), U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. This publication lists five indicator categories for plants which can be found in wetlands: Obligate Wetland (OBL, > 99 percent occurrence), Facultative Wetland (FACW, 67-98 percent occurrence), Facultative (FAC, 37-67 percent occurrence), Facultative Upland (FACU, found in wetlands 1-33 percent of the time), and Obligate Upland (UPL, < 1 percent occurrence in wetlands in the area in question, but may be wetland plants in other regions). Abundant presence of species in the Obligate and Facultative Wetland indicator categories is a reliable indicator that a given tract of land is functionally a wetland. The absence of these species, however, is not a reliable indicator that an area is not a wetland, as these species may have been locally extirpated by severe disturbance or management.

In the past, wetlands have been thought of as wastelands. People either stayed away from them or tried to get rid of them. Because of this, over half of the wetlands in the United States have been destroyed. But as people begin to understand the value of wetlands, more of them are being protected or restored.

Wetlands are a valuable natural resource and contribute to the vitality and safety of both urban and rural environments. Wetland benefits include:
  • Managing stormwater volume (or decreasing flooding) by storing and absorbing excess water when floods threaten.
  • Manages water volume by supplying streams with water during dry weather.
  • Because of the heavy vegetation, wetlands dissipate storm energy by slowing the flow of stormwater and allowing it to drop its sediment load.
  • Pollutants are reduced through the natural processes of various organisms, which remove nutrients and organic compounds from water.
  • Replenishes groundwater by holding water on land and allowing water to gradually soak into the ground.
  • Provides wildlife habitat (food, shelter, and nursery) for a wide variety of plants, birds, amphibians, insects, and fish.
  • Offering recreational benefits or values to society by providing opportunities for bird watching, fishing, hunting, nature study, photography, and green space.
  • Improving the quality of life by providing and maintaining a safe, healthful living environment for residents.
  • Some of the financial benefits include:

    1. Trapping sediment and reducing dredging costs.
    2. Storing water and protecting against flood damage.
    3. Decreasing streamflow energy and reducing erosion rates and property damage.
    4. Providing green space and improving property values.

Additional Information:
     

Wetland study resources: http://dep.wv.gov/WWE/getinvolved/sos/Pages/Wetstudyguide.aspx


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