January 18 , 2005

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A wetland provides important services to our environment; and when it disappears, so do those services. We lose vital flood protection, water cleansing, and food. All of the animals and plants that live in that habitat for all or part of their lives often have nowhere else to go. Frogs have no place to mate and lay eggs; pintail ducks lose a watering and feeding stop on their long migrations; aquatic insects die and all the animals that eat them must find food elsewhere.

Wetlands and the Environment
Wetlands cover less than ten percent of the earth's surface, but are the source of almost one-quarter of the world's productivity. For example, saltwater wetlands provide nursery habitat for most of the fish and shellfish that we eat. As these habitats are destroyed, the ability of fish populations to replenish themselves is also destroyed. What effect do you think this could have on our food supply in the future? Wetlands are so productive because of the amount of vegetation they contain. Abundant plants constantly photosynthesize, converting carbon dioxide to oxygen and producing energy and food. Nutrients produced by the plants are distributed widely through floods, storms, and tides. And the dead and dying plants (detritus) form the base of food webs: Protozoa, bacteria, fungi, and larvae consume the detritus; fish, worms, birds, and insects consume the detritus-consumers; and so on.

The dense vegetation of wetlands create a natural water treatment system that surpasses anything that humans have created. As water enters a wetland, it slows. Sediment settles out and is trapped by the wetland plants and their roots. The plants also absorb almost two-thirds of the nitrate and phosphorous commonly carried in stormwater runoff and floods, especially from water that has come from agricultural areas and their heavy loads of fertilizer.

Bacteria in the water and soil also can neutralize wastes, including the body wastes of animals and humans. The slowed, cleansed water of a wetland may pass into another waterway, but much of it percolates into the ground and recharges groundwater supplies. Such supplies provide a majority of the drinking water for many regions of the United States. For example, one wetland in Massachusetts was found to recharge a shallow aquifer with more than 240 million gallons per month.

In addition to slowing and cleansing water, the wetland's dense vegetation creates a tough buffer zone that can deflect waves and other heavy water surges that might otherwise erode shorelines and threaten human habitations.

Wetlands and Our Economy
Human engineers have built efficient wastewater treatment facilities and constructed elaborate flood protections: projects that cost millions of dollars. The wetlands that these structures often replace could have done the same work for free and provided jobs and recreation for millions of people. Just as the nutritive value expands out from each wetland, so does its economic value.

One healthy saltwater marsh, for example, cleans water, recharges groundwater, nurses millions of fish and shellfish that are then caught by thousands of commercial and recreational anglers, and consumed by millions of people, and provides habitat for hundreds of birds, reptiles, and amphibians that people spend millions of dollars each year to see, photograph, and sometimes hunt.

Wetlands provide another important service for people: these bountiful habitats are also popular places for recreation. For example, birders are the fastest growing group of outdoor enthusiasts in Idaho, and they can often be found around wetlands watching waterfowl, songbirds, raptors, and shorebirds. Idaho's outdoor enthusiasts have good company. People who hunt, fish, canoe, and photograph wildlife also rely on wetlands and contributed almost $60 billion to our national economy in one year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Recognizing the importance of wetlands, the federal government now promotes a policy of "no net loss" of wetlands; federal laws back up this policy and direct various federal agencies to consider wetlands preservation a priority when considering approval of construction, development, or industry. These laws are outlined in Chapter Five; but first, read on to find out more about wetlands in general.

Now that you've glimpsed the reasons why wetlands are so important, check out wetlands near you - the inland wetlands.

Identifying Wetlands |
Marking Wetlands |
What Lives in Wetlands
Why Do We Need Wetlands? |

Types of Wetlands |

Common Names of Wetlands |
Five Subsystems of Wetlands |

What is a Wetland? | Where are all the Wetlands? |
Inland Wetlands | Wetlands for the Future | People and Wetlands |
Classroom Activities | Wetland Facts | Wetland Links |

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