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

The Compleat Wetlander: Wetlands – Nature’s Kidneys and Other Specialized Services

Wetlands are valued for the important services they provide:  wildlife habitat, flood water storage, recreation and pollution cleaning up (water quality).  Currently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning to collect information to assess the overall health of these important aquatic resoources in 2011. 

This will be accomplished by working with states, tribes and other partners to go out to specific sites to monitor and analyze wetland condition.  The sample sites will be a subset of those used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate losses and gains in wetland acreage—which it has done through its status and trends reports going back to the mid50s

EPA has or is in the process of completing similar surveys on the Nation’s coastal waters, wadeable streams, rivers and lakes.  All together it is the first comprehensive assessment of the overall health of the Nation’s aquatic resources.  EPA is conducting this national assessment to help everyone make good decisions about on how to better protect, maintain and restore the Nation’s waters.

It is a very ambitious project given the diversity of water resources and particularly wetland resources.  EPA has worked hard to coordinate and share information with state and tribal wetland managers.  There has been a lot of discussion about wetland health and wetland services (flood storage, wildlife, etc.) and how they relate to each other.  Let it suffice to say it’s complicated.

In addition to the scientific discussions the public has its own perception of healthy wetlands, which sometimes departs significantly from wetland experts.  First, most  are probably under the impression that ‘wetter is better.’  This is because nearly every photograph or video of wetlands involves water, usually lots of water.  Wetland professionals know that many very important wetlands are dry part or much of the year.  It is the wet-dry cycle that creates the services people value.  But photographs of wetlands during dry periods rarely make it into educational material.

The public also has some interesting perceptions of how large a wetland should be for certain services.  They are comfortable with the concept that wildlife and flood storage require large areas.  But for some reason the same perception does not carry over for improving water quality and reducing pollution.   I’m not sure why it is true, but here seems general consensus that improving water quality either does not or should not take up much space.

Maybe it is because it is easy to visualize wildlife habitat and flood storage.  We have all seen images of hundreds of waterfowl landing in a shallow marsh.  We know that floods are all about too much water and it’s logical that flood storage would require large acreage.  But there is no similar visual that applies to improving water quality.  In fact the only picture the public might logically seize on is the well known idea that wetlands are nature’s kidneys.  Kidneys are, after all, a relatively small organ.  It might be equally valid to call compare wetlands to another organ, the liver, since wetlands clean up water before it enters lakes and rivers, rather like the liver’s role for the circulatory system of the body.  The liver is also a much larger organ.  But calling wetlands ‘Nature’s livers’ is unlikely to improve their image.

The urge to understand and make sense of the world is intrinsic to being human.  That understanding is based wholly or in part on experience.  Today, more than ever, knowledge is shared through images—TV, movies, films, the internet, etc..  It will be interesting to learn what EPA discovers about the health of the Nation’s water resources and equally interesting to learn how the public interprets that information using their own visual experience.

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