Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

Counting Cattails: Where have all the Wetlands Gone?

final one againBy Melissa Mullineaux, Summer Intern, ASWM

I began my summer internship with the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) just a few weeks ago and I am amazed with all of the interesting information about wetlands I have learned about already. Of course there are the very important basics about wetland functions and their immense ability to filter and improve water quality, retain flood water, and provide living habitats for many species of animals, among other things. Because of this, it seems obvious healthywaters1to me that wetlands should be valued and safeguarded due to the vast amounts of benefits they offer societies around the world. Fortunately, there are laws and policies in place in the United States that enable the protection and restoration of these vital resources and there are also many wonderful citizens who come together to work toward these goals (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2002).

Even with all of the science and knowledge proving their significance, however, I am learning that many still view wetlands as agricultural or waste areas or unimportant locations that can and should be altered in order to use the land for development purposes. In fact, most of the history of our nation’s wetlands proves quite shocking to me as to how negatively wetlands have been viewed within human society and I would like to share the information I have learned with you in the case that you, too, do not know the history of the relationship this Nation has had with its great wetlands.

swamp1Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century, citizens and policy makers were focused on draining and filling wetlands or “swamps.” Wetlands were perceived to serve no purpose. They were seen as “evil,” “dismal,” and “depressing,” and were believed to be full of malaria and disease (Horton, 1999; Cech, 2010). In these early times, people found that once most of the water was drained from the “swamp” areas, the land became much more fertile for agricultural growth. Due to these findings, they developed innovative ways to effectively drain these wetland areas to “reclaim” the land for more economical purposes and they set out actively to eradicate as many wetlands as they could in the lower 48 states. The first thing they did was establish “Swamp Land Acts” that legally distributed the ownership of the “swamp lands” to the states where they were located (prior to this the federal government had ownership of these lands). States and private owners were granted full permission and control to drain and fill them as they saw fit in order to convert them into usable land (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1907, p. 8, 9; Connolly, Johnson & Williams, 2005, p. 3).

soil1Once in the hands of private land owners and the states, people got very creative in coming up with successful ways to drain wetlands in order to increase their agricultural farm yields. I watched a webinar that ASWM has posted to their website by a guest speaker, Tom Biebighauser, called A History of Wetland Drainage: How They Pulled the Plug and I learned about great historical innovations used to drain and fill wetlands. For example, early farmers found ways to plough the soil into ridges in order to plant on higher ground so that they would not drown their crops. This grew into techniques where they would either dig manually or plough the ground into deep, far reaching ditches using tools such as a mule scoop, which is a very large rounded scoop shovel.

The ditches would extend the entire length of the “great dismal land” (i.e. wetland) and would empty into nearby streams or rivers. In Virginia these ditches were dug by companies called “Adventurers for Draining the Great Dismal Swamp” and “The Dismal Swamp Land Company” that were spear headed by our great founding father, President George Washington, himself! Many of the ditches dug by Washington’s companies remain intact to this day. They now resemble natural streams, though they do not function as natural streams would, partly because they lack the usual ripples, pools and other natural features found in real streams.

clay2Another interesting and pivotal invention in the history of the destruction of wetlands was by a Scottish farmer named John Johnson who devised groundbreaking (no pun intended) wetland drainage techniques by placing clay pipes under the ground. By doing this, he quickly and successfully drew vast amounts of water away from the land that he used for agricultural purposes and almost immediately yielded greater crops. Many other farmers quickly caught on to this technique and it became very popular (ASWM, 2015).

To accommodate all of the excess water it was common practice to alter natural streams. They would do this by straightening and channelling the streams so that they could hold the excess water that was being drained dredging2into them. Typically, these activities were done by using tools such as dredges and explosives (ASWM, 2015). A document from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (1907) discusses recommendations to the states regarding managing “swamp and overflowed lands in the united states.” The document points out “to secure an adequate outlet for draining, it is frequently necessary to improve natural streams, by widening, straightening, and deepening, and to construct new channels where none exist, or to build levees or embankments on private property (p. 11).” These activities were encouraged by the Federal Government and were presented as the best ways for states to handle these situations.

It is startling to me that an estimated 11% of the lower 48 were wetlands prior to the arrival of European pioneers and now that number is reduced to an estimated 5%, with many of the remaining wetlands in poor health (Horton, 1999; Cech, 2010). That means that over 50% of our Nation’s wetlands and their priceless benefits are now gone. I knew that wetlands were not always honored but I had no idea the extent to which our nation had supported actions that removed them from the landscape.

wetlandloss3On a positive note, however, even though early history in the United States acted counterproductively toward the health and protection of wetlands, great strides have also been made toward their safeguarding. As mentioned above, with the growing knowledge of the significance of these vital resources, new policies and laws have been put in place to restore wetlands and to protect and care for the ones we have left. I am excited to further my education regarding the history of legislation in this country that has aided in the protection of wetlands and I invite you to stay tuned for some more blogs from Counting Cattails so that you may follow me in my journey!


Association of State Wetland Managers. (2015, October 2). A history of wetland drainage: how they pulled the plug [Webinar]. In Improving Wetland Restoration Success Project Series.

Cech, T. (2010). Wetlands and wildlife. In Principles of Water Resources: History, Development, Management, and Policy.

Connolly, K., Johnson, S., & Williams. (2005). Wetlands law and policy: Understanding section 404. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.

Horton, T. (1999, March 12). U.S. views on wetlands vary through the years. The Baltimore Sun.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (1907). Swamp and overflowed lands in the United States: Ownership and reclamation (Office of Experiment Stations—Circular 76). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2002, March). Functions and values of wetlands. (EPA 843-F-01-002-c).

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