Have you kissed a frog lately and thanked it? If not, this is your chance because May is National Wetlands Month.
“Wait…what?”you say. “What the heck is National Wetlands Month?”
Funny you should ask. You see, the federal government recognizes the beauty, the raw power, and the undeniable necessity of wetlands, not because of the commercial development value, but because of their intrinsic and strategic value in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
Wetlands have three distinct parameters that earn them the title. First, they are water-saturated and can always be wet, like swamps, marshes, bogs and coastal wetlands, or seasonally wet, resulting from winter snow melt, and occurring in forested or wooded or open areas that collect standing water, and sometimes dry like ephemeral pools or streams which reemerge after a rain event and dry out with the sun until the next rain event. Second, their soils are hydric meaning that at least for some part of the year the soils will be immersed in water. Thirdly, they have more than less hydrophytic vegetation which simply means that this type of plant thrives in a water environment. Unless it’s an obvious wetland like a marsh or bog or coastal plain, a bit of scientific investigation is necessary to make a wetlands determination as it’s not always apparent to the naked eye. Permits are required to build in wetlands as well as avoidance and minimization of the planned disturbance and mitigation for whatever amount of wetlands are converted to uplands. It’s a bit of a complicated process, but with the federal government’s “no net loss”of wetlands policy, a crucial one.
Why, gosh darn it, are these mosquito-infested swamps so important? Well, wetlands act like a sponge. They control flooding, filter pollutants, and buffer storm surges like nobody’s business. The Mississippi Delta which is practically one huge wetland has over 40% of the wetlands in the lower 48 states and has lost over 1,900 square miles since the 1930’s. About two football fields worth of wetlands are lost every hour. It used to be that 50 miles of wetlands separated New Orleans from the next hurricane, but no more. Now storm surges and big winds have their way with her.
Philadelphia, was also a big wetland when the colonists first settled, but they ditched and drained their way to what is now known as Center City Philadelphia. The problem is not necessarily the conversion of wetlands. Many port towns around the coasts of our country were once inundated with wetlands and are now bustling metropolises rather than said mosquito-filled swamps, but overdevelopment, such as in the Florida Keyes and surrounding environs, has resulted in life out of balance. As coastal cities continue to build out, or develop their barrier islands beyond holding capacity, the 100-year storm which now seems to happen every five or ten years will continue to pound what used to be only shoreline, but is now littered with million dollar homes.
How many wetlands do we need to control flooding, keep pollutants out of our rivers and streams, and help blunt the surge of rising winds and tides? It’s a fact specific, case-by-case analysis, but as climate change forces sea levels to rise, I’d hazard a guess that we’re reaching critical mass in some of the more densely populated coastal areas, for example, the Jersey Shore. Maybe a few more acres of wetlands wouldn’t have stopped Hurricane Sandy, but they would have cut down way down on the property damage. As the sea levels rise, wetlands have become more important than ever. Insurance companies are keenly aware of this —pun intended —sea change, and have started charging more for policies on climate-threatened properties. Some are even suing municipalities to pay for the cost of global warming such as Farmers Insurance Co. did with some Chicago-area governments in a landmark class action suit filed on May 2, 2014 (Illinois Farmers Insurance Co. v. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago District, et al., Case No. 14CH06608, in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois).
By the way, about the frog: they are extremely important to the balance of the ecosystem since they eat bugs, filter our drinking water (tadpoles), and are themselves a source of food for other species, as well as the source of many medical advances for humans. Plus they make the most rockin’music! Unfortunately, they’ve been on the decline for the last 50 years with fewer numbers and more mutations because of a variety of things, but degrading water quality, habitat loss and overuse of pesticides are a few of the major ones. Frogs are to the ecosystem like the canary is to the coal mine. Their death is the first indication that there’s a problem and where frogs go, humans will follow.
We can’t all have beach front property, not at great public and personal cost, but we can all enjoy the beach. What is it the Buddha said? Everything in moderation? So for National Wetlands Month, go ahead and build that dream vacation home, but build it on a upland so tomorrow our kids will still have a frog or two left to kiss.