By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM
I was never a fan of history growing up. Instead of getting to go to kid-centric places like Disneyland or SeaWorld, my parents insisted on taking us on long family vacations to visit historical sites: graveyards, battlefields, museums, cathedrals, monuments, etc. And my folks would stop to read EVERY placard along the way at any and every historical site. As an adult I am definitely grateful for my upbringing – as a child, however, I was convinced that it was an immense waste of time. I could not even begin to understand what any of it had to do with me or my current, modern life.
I don’t think I am alone, however. In fact, I believe that there are many adults who still firmly believe this – that history is irrelevant to modern life. Progress has made history somewhat trite after all, right? Not at all – especially if you’re considering taking up a wetland restoration project.
Tom Biebighauser, founder of the Wetland Restoration and Training Center, has managed to unearth (pun intended – you’ll get it in a minute) what in my mind, is one of the most significant hidden barriers to wetland restoration success: buried historic drainage structures. And they are everywhere. In fact, according to Tom’s research, the B.F. Whartenby Clay Tile Factory in Waterloo, NY made only 3,000 clay drainage tiles in 1838. By 1849, they were producing 840,000 clay tiles per year – a 99.6% increase in production in just 11 years. And they weren’t the only game in town.
Humans have masterfully drained wetlands in this country for over 300 years and there are virtually no records or maps of where they are buried. And to an untrained eye, they’re masterfully hidden. These tiles were made of rock, wood, brick, clay, concrete and plastic pipe – not the kind of material you’ll pick up with a metal detector. But find them you must, because embarking on a wetland restoration project where you are trying to reestablish the site’s hydrology, without finding and taking out the drainage structures, is like trying to fill a perforated bucket with water. It just doesn’t work, dear Liza.
Fortunately Tom’s trainings provide folks with tips on how to spot where a wetland used to be and where one should start digging to unearth these wily drainage structures. At first it feels like you’re looking at an M.C. Escher sketch – trying to decipher what is real versus an optical illusion. But once you know what to look for – the important hidden signs – suddenly you see the landscape in an entirely new light. It speaks to you and tells you a story – a story about our nation’s history and the brave, ingenious, and hard-working folks, who found innovative ways to feed their communities, create jobs and manage the land.
These early farm steaders lived in a very different world with a much smaller population and with, what seemed like at the time, to be unlimited natural resources. They did not have the knowledge that we now have in regard to the benefits of wetlands and their significant role in maintaining biodiversity, providing habitat, attenuating floodwaters, storing groundwater, etc. Our generation now knows that draining wetlands comes with a slew of repercussions. Now we know that it is far better to work with nature than to attempt to conquer nature.
So now it is our turn to roll up our sleeves and work just as hard and just as ingeniously as these early farmers. We can learn from their mistakes and learn from their successes. If we want to restore wetlands successfully, we must learn the history of the land and the history of those who lived here before us because they changed the landscape. Wetland drainage is certainly not a new technique for expanding agriculture. In fact, research suggests that the Maya dug ditches between wetlands to create irrigation and diversion canals. They used the fill to elevate the land area between the canals for intensive farming. Some researchers suggest that wetland drainage by the Maya may have contributed to changing the local climate. It would be interesting to learn the history of how the Native Americans managed the land in the U.S. for agriculture and what kind of drainage systems they may have employed.
So I guess history isn’t as boring as I used to think it was. It has allowed me to see the present landscape as a product of the past. And more importantly, it has allowed me to envision how we might effectively restore the landscape for the future. So For Peat’s Sake, before you embark on a wetland restoration project, learn about the history of your site and look for hidden signs of drainage – don’t fill a holey bucket!
For More Information:
Tom Biebighauser and the Center for Wetland and Stream Restoration
ASWM Webinar Recording: The History of Wetland Drainage in the U.S.
Publications & Articles:
Wetland Drainage, Restoration and Repair
Mayans converted wetlands to farmland
Did Climate Change Cause the Decline of the Maya?