Protecting Wetlands: Vital to Farms and the Environment

According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) , wetlands cover 5.5 million acres or 15 percent of land  in the state of Michigan.  This seems like a small amount of acreage compared to the total 62,713, 600 acres that constitute all of Michigan, however, wetlands are shrinking, and are destroyed more often than saved.  Over the decades, Michigan has lost more than 50 percent of its wetlands.

So, what are wetlands, and why should we be concerned that they are eradicated?  Michigan law defines a wetland as “land characterized by the presence of water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support , and that under normal circumstances does support, wetland vegetation, or aquatic life, and is commonly referred to as a bog, swamp or marsh.”  Simply said, it is where land and water meet.  

There are four common examples of wetlands, including marshes, swamps, bogs and fens.  Marshes are found near streams, lakes, ponds and rivers  and range from a few inches to a few feet deep.  Swamps are home to water-tolerant trees and shrubs and contain saturated soils and standing water.  Bogs are characterized by peat deposits , acidic waters, and a mossy floor, providing a habitat for numerous specially adapted organisms.  And Finally, fens are similar to bogs, but are less acidic and have higher nutrient levels.  

All of these wetlands provide benefits to farmers, outdoor enthusiasts and to the environment, and especially to water quality.  Let’s look at some of the advantages of wetlands.

First, wetlands  absorb water slowly and release it as ground water during dry periods.  This sponge-like quality slows waters momentum as it travels to the ocean or the river, minimizing erosion of soils.  Loss of precious top soil is critical to maintaining soil nutrients, so important to farmers particularly since weed eradicating chemicals leach important nutrients from the soil. 

Secondly, wetlands serve as a filtration system to water.  Because the water travels slowly around plants and vegetation, suspended sediments drop from the water flow, keeping pollutants, toxins and nutrients out of the water system.  As we now know, water overloaded with nutrients is susceptible to algae bloom, very destructive to plant and animal life.

Finally, wetlands protect against floods.  They help to disperse excess water and can store up to 60 days of floodwater according to the Environmental Protection Agency.  They serve as a buffer against colder temperatures also, and as farmland has replaced wetlands, crops have become more susceptible to frost.  This is true even for farmers as far south as Florida.

Existing wetlands need to be maintained.  Lost wetlands need to be mitigated.  The goal of mitigation is to ensure that no net loss of wetlands occurs. It is a means of offsetting what has been lost by acquiring a permit to drain or fill a wetland by creating a new or restored or previously existing wetland.  Michigan was the first state, and remains one of only two states to have received authorization from the federal government to administer the federal wetland program. 

Comparable to rainforests, wetlands provide a unique service to all species on the planet maintaining natural plant and organism growth and providing filtrations systems for clean water. In a time of decreasing soil, air, and water quality, wetlands need to be protected.

 

— Deborah J. Comstock
Farm Owner, Board Member, Lenawee Indivisible
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