Wetlands are an important part of our overall global ecosystem. So much more than just a swampy body of water, wetlands offer numerous and diverse benefits to the environment. They act as habitats for hundreds of species of animals, including many endangered species, and play a major role in reducing flooding in adjacent ecosystems, aid in groundwater recharge, water retention and detention, and act as erosion controls. Moreover, wetlands are important sources of fresh water, improving water quality through filtering, and they provide necessary nutrients to surrounding environments. These are simply a few of the many important functions and roles wetlands have on their own and surrounding ecosystems. However, the importance of wetlands was ignored for many years and is only recently becoming an area of public concern.
Over the past three hundred years, the continental United States has lost more than fifty percent of its total wetland resources, much of that loss occurring within the last century. This loss is not only detrimental to all the species that are displaced, but it can have important negative consequences for humans as well. Two main functions of wetlands are preventing flooding and providing fresh groundwater sources. As more and more wetlands are destroyed, local communities may suffer from increased flood damages and will be forced to look elsewhere for fresh drinking water supplies. Wetlands act as natural sponges for the environment. As water levels rise, wetlands can absorb this extra water and release it slowly. This reduces flooding heights and slows the rate of water flow in rivers and streams.
In addition to flooding controls, wetlands cleanse the water supply when their plants and soils naturally filter nutrients and sediments through their area. The plants slow water flow, allowing materials to settle and letting the plant life to absorb nutrients. This makes nearby lakes, rivers, and streams cleaner and drinking water safer. This is a vital natural resource for humans, whose need for fresh drinking water is increasing. For example, in Indiana alone, more than 70% of residents rely on ground water for their fresh water needs. Wetlands can be a major contributor to providing this fresh ground water. Unfortunately, where wetlands used to cover 25% of Indiana, human development has reduced that number to a mere 4% of Indiana’s total land use. And Indiana is not the only state that has suffered dramatic wetlands losses. All across America wetlands are being converted to “usable” land for development. While governmental regulations and environmental education has helped ease this rapid decline, these damages have had (and will continue to have) negative consequences for our environment and global community.
Call to Action
There are many ways you can help stem the tide of wetland destruction. Some of the simplest ways to help are through education and awareness. Get involved in your own community and learn about the wetlands and protection policies near your home. You can support public protection initiatives and encourage neighbors and organizations to protect and value wetlands in your watershed. Seek alternatives to developing on or near wetlands and avoid wetland alteration or degradation. As our communities become educated and aware of the plight of our wetlands, more and more will step in to prevent further loss and damage.