Guest post written by Ha Do, a Dogwood Alliance intern.
When I was a schoolgirl in Vietnam, wetland forests for me were a negligible part of my adventures to national parks or on the way to beaches with my family. I used to think that wetland forests, hundreds of miles away from where I live, had little to nothing to do with my life. But when starting my career and studying environmental science, I knew that I had failed to realize the role of wetland forests. In fact, wetland forests, wherever I am and whether I appreciate it or not, always and diligently provide their valuable services to my life.
Wetlands Keep Our Water Clean
Every drop of clean water I drink can be attributed to wetlands because they have powerful natural water filtering plants. Rainfall usually washes sediments, toxics, residual nutrients, and chemicals from farmland, road surfaces, and sewage systems to water bodies. Wetlands with dense vegetation protect our surface water and groundwater systems by slowing down the water flow, trapping sediments, removing excess nutrients, and detoxifying chemicals before returning cleaner water to the rivers, streams, and aquifers. As much as 90% of the sediments that are present in runoff or in streamflow may be removed if the water passes through wetlands. This regime improves the water quality, not only in rivers and aquifers, but it also creates a safer water supply source. The value from water filtration that wetlands in the US South provide is estimated at about $115 billion.
Wetlands Protect Us From Dangerous Flooding
Wetlands defend us from floods and lessen the damages from flooding. Wetlands are reservoirs to retain stormwater and slow down runoff water. About 330,000 gallons of water can be stored by a one-acre wetland, with one-foot depth. This amount of water will gradually flow back to rivers and streams or penetrate groundwater layers. If wetlands are destroyed, stormwater will flow directly to open water bodies, increasing the risk of flooding.
In the US South, wetlands prevent $150 billion of flood damages. In the period from 1851 to 2004, regions along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts experienced more than three hundred hurricanes. Particularly, in the context of climate change, hurricanes are expected to happen at a higher frequency and intensity. As you may remember, three years in a row from 2016 to 2018, historical hurricanes (Hurricane Mathew in 2016, Harvey and Irma in late 2017, and Florence in 2018) hit the US South, taking thousands of lives and costing hundreds of billions of dollars. Dealing with these natural disasters becomes one of the priorities in sustainable development. Wetlands, therefore, are a viable type of green and low-impact infrastructure to prevent floods and reduce the damages from flooding.
Wetlands Mitigate Sea Level Rise
Wetlands work to mitigate and adapt to sea level rise, even though they are also vulnerable and suffer the impacts of this phenomenon. Sea level rise leads to shoreline erosion, inundation and increase in the salinity of wetlands, and damages or malfunctions of coastal infrastructure. Low-lying coastal areas are more prone to frequent floods and storm surge. Wetlands, such as marshes and mangroves, are a practical option to fight against sea level rise and flooding. Wetland plants form a natural barrier, breaking down the waves crashing into the shore. They also bind and lock down the soil with their roots, preventing the soil from being washed away during flooding. With 40% of the national population living in coastal counties, conserving wetlands is critical to protecting our coastal communities.
Wetlands Support A Wide Variety Of Wildlife
Wetlands are home to many endemic and rare species of plants and animals. They have rich biodiversity, including fish, birds, and high-value flora and fauna. About 46% of endangered species are found in wetlands or wetlands-related regions. Because of their unique ecosystems, wetlands offer significant economic opportunities from recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, and bird watching. This is an economic value far beyond that of logging. In the US, the value wetlands bring from recreation, tourism, and aesthetics is $126 billion, nearly a hundred fold of that from raw materials such as wood.
It is clear to me now that wetlands in my home country and across the world are a critical piece of natural infrastructure. Despite the great values that wetlands bring to our lives, they are one of the most threatened and degraded ecosystems in the world. Protecting wetland forests is preserving and protecting the quality of our own lives.
Are you ready to take action? Fight to protect our nation’s wetland forests.
Ha Do is an international student from Vietnam who has been actively working to protect water resources and the environment in her home country. Coming to the US to complete her master’s degree in Environmental Management at Duke University, Ha feels connected with the wilderness of the US South and wants to contribute to the communities that she’ll be a part of for the next two years. She has been engaged in various environmental education activities and the arising climate movements in North Carolina. Ha loves travelling and exploring other cultures through their cuisine.