Inland wetlands include marshes, ponds, lakes, fens, rivers, floodplains, and swamps. Coastal wetlands include saltwater marshes, estuaries, mangroves, lagoons and even coral reefs. Fish ponds, rice paddies, and salt pans are human-made wetlands.
Celebrate wetlands for what they provide for us around the world and in Vermont.
Clean Water: Less than 3% of the world’s water is fresh, and most of that is frozen. Yet every human requires 5 to 13 gallons of water a day for basic drinking, cooking and cleaning. Wetlands provide our water needs and help replenish the groundwater aquifers that are an important source of fresh water for humanity. Almost two billion people in Asia and 380 million Europeans depend on groundwater aquifers for their water supply. Some of the pollutants from pesticides, industry and mining, including heavy metals and toxins are absorbed by wetland sediments, plants and marine life.
Food: Humans consume 40 pounds of fish each year on average. Most commercial fish depend on coastal wetlands for part of their life cycle. Rice, grown in wetland paddies, is the staple diet of nearly three billion people, and accounts for 20 % of the world’s nutritional intake.
Shock Absorbers: Peatlands and wet grasslands in river basins act as natural sponges, absorbing rainfall, creating wide surface pools and reducing floods in streams and rivers. This storage capacity also helps safeguard against drought. Mangroves, saltmarshes and coral reefs all reduce the speed and height of storm surges. Their roots bind the shoreline, resist erosion by wind and waves, and increase resilience against climate change.
Carbon Storage: Peatlands alone cover an estimated 3% of the world’s land area, but they hold 30% of all carbon stored on land. This is twice the amount stored in all the world’s forests. But when they are burned or drained for agriculture, they go from being a carbon sink to a carbon source. CO2 emissions from peatland fires, drainage and extraction equate to 10% of all annual fossil fuel emissions.
Biodiversity: Wetlands are home to more than 100,000 known freshwater species alone, and this number is growing all the time. From 1999 to 2009, some 257 new species of freshwater fish were discovered in the Amazon. Wetlands are essential for many amphibians and reptiles, as well as for bird breeding and migration. Individual wetlands often hold endemic species; forms of life that are unique to one particular site such as Lake Baikal in Russia or the Rift Valley lakes of East Africa.
Livelihoods and Products: 61.8 million people earn their living directly from fishing and aquaculture. Including their families, more than 660 million people depend on these sectors. Sustainably managed wetlands provide timber for building, food items (rice) vegetable oil, medicinal plants, stems and leaves for weaving and fodder for animals.
In its native habitat, sweetgrass grows primarily in wetlands and riparian areas. Many wetland plants are/were used for basketry including rushes, cattail, willow, and red cedar.
But even with knowing all the benefits for protecting wetlands, wetlands around the world are still disappearing- Why?
This map, created by the US Department of Agriculture, shows the distribution of wetlands around the world in 1996.
Scientific studies show that 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared since 1900. Measured against 1700, an estimated 87% have been lost. Inland wetlands are disappearing at a faster pace than coastal ones, but the overall trend is clear.
Closer to home, it is estimated that less than 5% of Vermont is currently wetland and that over 35% of Vermont’s historic wetland areas have been lost or severely impaired.
What is driving this loss? Unfortunately, wetlands are often viewed as wasteland; something to be drained, filled and converted to other purposes. The main causes of the degradation and loss of wetlands are:
- Major changes in land use, especially an increase in agriculture and grazing animals
- Water diversion through dams, dikes and canalization
- Infrastructure development, particularly in river valleys and coastal areas
- Air and water pollution and excess nutrients
In the United States, drainage for forest-related uses such as logging accounted for a considerable share of wetlands loss between 1998 and 2009. Inundation caused major declines as well. Urban and rural development together accounted for just over a third of wetland losses.
Specifically in Vermont, residential, commercial and industrial development have been the primary causes of wetland loss in recent years.
What can we do to help protect our remaining wetlands?
In Vermont, we have relatively strong wetland protection from the following state and federal laws:
- S. Army Corps of Engineers Section 404 permits;
- Vermont’s Act 250; and the
- Vermont Wetland Rules.
On average, VT Wetlands Program reviews over 500 wetland-related projects per year so that impacts to wetlands are avoided or minimized and the functions and values of the wetlands are maintained.
If you don’t work in the Wetlands Program, here are some suggestions for what you can do to make a difference in protecting and celebrating wetlands:
Open your eyes to the wetlands near you:
- Visit a nearby wetland or a unique wetland in Vermont like the Colchester Bog
- Learn about wetlands in Vermont by visiting the Wetlands Program homepage: http://www.vtwaterquality.org/wetlands.htm See our photo gallery, learn about wetland plants, soils, and animals, explore wetland functions and values, read about vernal pools, best management practices for certain activities, understand the threat of invasive species, and restoration opportunities. Find out if you are qualified to receive funding for the protection of wetlands on your property!
- If you see any illegal activities occurring in a wetland, report it on the VT wetlands homepage: http://www.anr.state.vt.us/dec/co/enf/enf-complaint.htm
- Drop some interesting facts about wetlands into conversations
- Hold an educational event so people in your area can better understand how local wetlands benefit them.
- If you are an educator, incorporate wetlands into your curriculum
Organize a wetlands clean-up:
- Working in a group for an hour or two can achieve much in a very short time
- Take pictures before and after to highlight the difference
Change your consumption habits:
Saving water, reducing harmful waste and encouraging sustainable farming and fishing can all have a positive effect on wetlands.
- Buy sustainably raised or caught seafood, organic produce and meat
- Use reusable bags at the grocery store
- Take shorter showers
- Recycle household trash, make sure batteries/harmful waste do not end up in landfills/wetlands
Manage your own garden consciously:
Polluted water and invasive plants pose a real threat to wetlands.
- Improve the water and drainage effects of your own garden
- Select native and pest-resistant plants and place them in settings that suit them
- Use as little fertilizer as possible, and avoid toxic pesticides
- Water thoroughly but infrequently, using collected rainwater
- Here is a website dedicated to the celebration of World Wetlands Day with facts about wetlands, a photo contest, curriculum teachers can use in the classroom, education and outreach materials that can be used, like flyers and posters announcing the day! http://www.worldwetlandsday.org/en/
Join with others to make a difference:
Many organizations and networks already work for wetlands and their sustainable use. Link up with their efforts. Here are just a few of the largest:
A Celebration of Wetlands around the world!