Wetlands: Nature’s Filter
Today is World Wetlands Day, a day to appreciate the value of wetlands.
Wetlands make up a small proportion of the Earth’s surface – in Vermont, only about 4 percent of the land surface is comprised of wetlands. Despite this they are disproportionately important. Most Vermont animals use wetlands as habitat and despite their small land cover, around half of Vermont’s plant species also occur in wetlands, ranging from common red maples to carnivorous plants and rare orchids.
Wetlands aren’t just useful for animals and plants, however. They are also essential in cleaning up Vermont’s lakes and rivers. When water flows through a wetland, nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen are absorbed by the plants and soil. Sediment that is held in fast-moving water is also absorbed by the wetland as water slows in its movement. Wetlands even reduce the effects of flooding – one study found that wetlands prevented millions of dollars of flooding in Middlebury alone during Tropical Storm Irene.
Since wetlands are natural systems, they do their job on their own. It doesn’t cost anything for a wetland to clean water or reduce floods. All we must do is leave the wetland and a buffer of adjacent upland vegetation alone – studies have also shown that disturbing or removing a wetland can cause significant loss of water quality, among other impacts. Removing a wetland is squeezing a sponge full of potentially dirty water right into our waterways!
Wetlands of all sizes help protect water quality, and small wetlands can have a disproportionately large benefit. Data collected by the State of Vermont shows that our small wetlands can maintain as good of condition as our large wetlands if the wetland and an upland buffer are left undisturbed. So take pride even if you have a small wetland on your land – you are doing your part to improve Vermont’s water quality, just by leaving it alone!