By Travis Loop
The moon lit up the marsh as my canoe glided across the water. In shallow sections, my paddle pushed against the bottom. Around me were frogs peeping, fish splashing and birds rustling. For a 13-year-old boy on a field trip, these Chesapeake Bay wetlands were a dramatic introduction to the remarkable area where the land meets the water.
Why are wetlands – often mucky and unattractive – remarkable? It is for their critical role in the ecosystem and in our communities. In many places I’ve been throughout my life I have found wetlands all around me… and discovered their importance.
When living in Wilmington, North Carolina, I saw how coastal wetlands and Carolina bays are vital habitat for wildlife, including the alligator peering at me while I kayaked in a swamp. Wetlands are diverse biological ecosystems and more than one-third of threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands. Migratory waterfowl use wetlands – especially prairie potholes in the Midwest – for resting, feeding or nesting. This is big business – about 2.3 million people annually hunt migratory birds, spending $1.8 billion dollars.
Now at EPA headquarters in Washington, colleagues say swamps, marshes and bogs are the kidneys for our nation’s waterways, filtering pollution and reducing sediment that would hurt downstream. For example, without the Congaree Bottomland Hardwood Swamp in South Carolina, a $5 million wastewater treatment plant would be needed.
During a trip to Louisiana I heard how wetlands function as natural sponges that trap water and lessen flooding. Wetlands along the Mississippi River once stored 60 days of floodwater. Now they store only 12 days because most have been filled or drained and there is more frequent flooding along the river.
I didn’t expect to find wetlands when living in Hawaii. Yet near my house on Oahu, wetlands were part of Ka’elepulu Pond. I’ve learned there are wetlands in unique places across the country – about 20 percent of wetlands (20 million acres) in the continental U.S. are not visibly connected to other waterways – as you would suspect wetlands to be – but may have groundwater connections and provide other benefits.
Sadly, many wetlands have already been lost or altered – more than half of the original wetland areas in the continental U.S. are gone. And near my home in Annapolis, Maryland, climate change is raising sea levels, slowly swallowing the wetlands of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.
We need these wetlands around us.
About the author: Travis Loop is the director of communications for EPA’s Office of Water.