The Decline of America's Wetlands
Written by: Clare Peine
Did you know that wetlands are called “nature’s kidneys” because they cleanse and filter out harmful materials from the Earth? Did you also know the wetlands in the United States have 5,000 different plant species, 190 amphibian species, and one third of all bird species? Wetlands are an extremely important component of the ecosystem, which is why it is upsetting to know that America has lost half of its original wetlands due to development and agriculture.
America’s wetlands can be placed into five different categories: oceans, lakes, rivers, estuaries, and palustris. Those five basic categories are then broken down into multiple sub categories based upon the vegetation and wildlife that exist within them. Nearly 70% of America's wetlands, with the exception of Alaska, can be described as estuaries and palustris.
Before European colonization of the United States, there was an estimated 220 million acres of wetlands. Since then, there has been a slow decline of wetlands as they are converted into agricultural land or developed for cities, housing, etc.. According to estimates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “agricultural conversions claimed about 398,000 wetland acres annually from the mid-1950's to the mid-1970's, and 157,000 acres a year from the mid-1970's until the mid-1980's.” Thankfully, since then, we have had a slow decline in the amount of wetlands that are being converted into agricultural land. Still, the conversion for agriculture is at about 31,000 acres per year.
Wetland drainage started with European colonization of the United States, because there was a larger demand for crops. The first large scale wetland drainage projects were done by the Dismal Swamp Drainage Company based in Virginia and North Carolina. In fact, George Washington was a surveyor for the company. The drainage company was created in 1793 to, “drain, tame, and make profitable the Great Dismal Swamp, a wetland that stretches across hundreds of thousands of acres between Norfolk, Virginia and Edenton, North Carolina.” This type of wetland drainage continued up until the 1970s.
Before the 1970’s the main protocol for dealing with wetlands had been to drain them and then use the land for crops. It was never considered that wetlands are an important part of the ecosystem and that drainage of the wetland areas would create harm for the vegetation and wildlife. In recent years, the functions of wetlands have received greater attention, so now Americans can understand the importance of these wetlands. There have been recent environmental regulations passed that have had some impact on the drainage of wetlands. The Wetland Reserve Program, which is now known as the Wetland Reserve Easement program, was “offered nationwide in 1995 to help to restore wetland hydrology to millions of acres of cropland.” In fact, the period between 1997 and 2007 was the first decade in modern history that saw an increase in palustrine and estuarine wetlands.” This and other regulations have helped to protect America’s wetlands, but there is still more that needs to be done.
Visit the action tab on our website to learn more about what Seaside Sustainability is doing, plus how you can help to make sure that our oceans, seas, wetlands, and estuaries are sustained and maintained so that future generations can enjoy what they have to offer.