Blogging from the Bog: How Healthy are the Nation’s Wetlands?

Go to EPA's Science Month pageAbout the author: Michael Scozzafava has been with EPA since 2004 and the Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds since 2006. He is project lead for the 2011 National Wetland Condition Assessment and chair of the National Wetlands Monitoring and Assessment Work Group (NWMAWG).

How healthy are the nation’s wetlands? Existing data sources make it almost impossible to answer this question with any confidence. The most recent Water Quality Report to Congress provided data for only 1.5% of wetlands nationwide. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Wetlands Status and Trends Reports provide invaluable information on the amount of wetlands (quantity), but are not designed to assess overall wetland health (quality).

It is vitally important that we answer this fundamental question to effectively plan wetland protection and restoration efforts. Currently, we don’t know if we’re using resources wisely or focusing work in areas that need the most help. We can’t identify the most common wetland threats and develop strategies to reduce those threats. The U.S. FWS documented that the country is gaining 32,000 wetland acres each year, but the data suggests we may be increasing the number of low quality wetlands that provide only one service (like storing excess rain water) and losing high quality wetlands that provide a range of services. So, although we’re increasing the total number of wetlands, we’re probably losing natural filtration for our drinking water, protection from coastal storm surges, habitat for birds and wildlife, and nursery grounds for fishes. We need to better understand the nature of wetland gains and losses, identify the types of wetlands that are especially at risk, and implement policies to reverse trends of wetland degradation.

EPA will collaborate with states, tribes, and other federal agencies to implement a field-based survey of the nation’s wetlands in 2011. We will sample about 900 randomly-selected sites using standard monitoring protocols that characterize the plants, algae, soils, and relative wetness of each sampling location. We will also test for high concentrations of chemicals and search for evidence of human and natural impacts at each site. In 2013, we will combine all of this information to produce a baseline assessment that reports the overall health of the nation’s wetlands and identifies the most common wetland threats.

It is crucial that the results of this assessment are used by decision makers to improve how wetlands are managed, restored, and protected. EPA has considered many possibilities for how the information might be used, but certainly have not identified every opportunity. So the question to decision-makers, wetland managers, and the general public is: what information can EPA provide to help you protect wetland resources?