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

The Compleat Wetlander: Where have all the Wetlands Gone? Why Does it Matter?

In 1990 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported on historic wetland losses in the United States.  It concluded that the lower 48 states had lost about 53% of its wetlands — over 100 million acres — that existed in the late 1700s.  This historic wetland loss number is a familiar statistic for anyone dealing with wetland issues in the United States.

However, wetland loss did not occur evenly over that time period.   Much of the United States was unexplored wilderness for the recently arrived Europeans in 1780 and wetland drainage probably occurred only on a relatively limited scale in the first part of the 19th century.  The Swamplands Act of 1850, which authorized the federal government to sell federally-owned swampland to private parties in return for an agreement to drain the land, encouraged wetland drainage in the Florida Everglades and a few other areas.  But wetlands have generally been converted to upland only when there is sufficient financing, good technology and the potential for economic profit.  That was not in place until the 20th Century, according to George Pavlov’s article in Farm Drainage in the United States: “Economic Survey of Farm Drainage.”  It was only in the 20th century that the creation of drainage districts to support financing and advances in technology made wide-scale wetland drainage possible.

But what about the rest of the world?

Turns out it’s about the same.

In October the United Nation’s Environment Program released a report, “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Water and Wetlands.” This ambitious report should be required reading for anyone who cares about wetlands.  First it summarizes the information available about wetland losses worldwide including references to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s report on historic losses.  But it goes further and takes a look at the consequences.  It points out that continued loss of wetlands threatens water security:  clean water for 80% of the world’s population.

Worldwide wetland losses are due to a combination of human actions: intensive agriculture, unsustainable water extraction for domestic and industrial use, urbanization, infrastructure development and pollution. The report concludes that continuing degradation of wetlands is resulting in significant economic burdens on communities, countries and businesses and documents how conserving wetlands and other resources supports local economies.

Some examples:

In the U.S. the Catskill / Delaware watershed provides about 90 percent of the water used by New York City citizens. In 1997, a study showed that building a new water treatment plant would cost between US$6 and US$8 billion, whereas ensuring good water quality through measures to reduce pollution in the watershed would only cost US$1.5 billion. This study led to programs to promote the sustainability of the watershed.

On the Amu Darya delta in Uzbekistan intensification and expansion of irrigation activities left only 10 percent of the original wetlands in place.  A pilot restoration project initiated in the delta, with the support of community, government and donors led to increased incomes, more cattle, more hay production for use and sale, and an increase in fish consumption of 15 kilogrammes per week per family.

In the Ibera Marshes in Argentina, conservation-based tourism activities have revived the economy of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, near the Ramsar Site “Lagunas y Esteros del Iberá”, creating new jobs and allowing local inhabitants to stay employed in the town rather than migrating to cities to look for work. Around 90 percent of the population now works in the tourism sector.

Many of the ideas and recommendations in the report are not new to wetland professionals and others who have developed an appreciation for the potential to leverage the natural environment to protect and support human populations.  But the real world examples that support the recommendations make it easier to understand and visualize how they could be applied in programs here in the United States. It documents that natural infrastructure can deliver specific services more cost effectively than built infrastructure.

This is important in the U.S. Every day the price tag assigned to Hurricane Sandy  in both dollars and human suffering is growing.  Already there are a number of articles and editorials published questioning national floodplain policy and whether it actually encourages placing people in harm’s way.  For anyone interested in this topic and looking for ideas on new ways to protect people and sustain economies by working with nature: this report is well worth reading.

UNEP Press Release: Vital Economic and Environmental Role of Wetlands Must Be Recognized to Avoid Further Degradation and Losses

UNEP Report: “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Water and Wetlands

Approximately 50 % Of World’s Wetlands Lost During The 20th Century

Flood Insurance, Already Fragile, Faces New Stress

Would We Leave Disaster-Prone Cities in the Absence of FEMA?

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