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How to help your wetlands survive humanity

Wetlands include some of America’s most prized locales for fishing and other outdoor activities, but they’re also some of the most delicately balanced – and threatened - ecosystems around.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than half of the 220 million acres of wetlands that are believed to have existed in the 1600s have been drained and converted for other uses – initially, for agriculture, and now, for development.

While the last few decades have seen a growing awareness of the ecological importance of these areas, they still face significant challenges from man.

Major threats to U.S. wetlands

Because wetlands provide level land and rich organic soil, they’ve been seen as prime property for agriculture.

Ninety percent of the wetlands in Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin have been drained for agriculture, for example, which has meant waterfowl and other species have squeezed into the remaining 10 percent – contributing to outbreaks of disease, according to the EPA.

Runoff and pollution
The runoff from urban, agricultural and mining areas carries chemicals and pollutants that, like the water itself, ultimately end up in the wetland, where they can harm both flora and fauna. This problem has increased with development, as impervious surfaces like standard concrete are installed in a wetland’s watershed.

The major sources of pollution in wetlands are fertilizer, human sewage, animal waste, road salts, pesticides, heavy metals and selenium.

Foreign material
Sediment that is intentionally dumped in a wetland also is a source of pollution. Mine wastes that were deposited in the Clark Fork River Basin in Montana decades ago have contributed to this area becoming the country’s largest Superfund site.

Even fill material that doesn’t contain pollutants changes a wetland’s environment – making it an upland habitat rather than one that caters to water-loving plants.

Ancillary development
Wetlands can also be affected by activities that happen outside of their immediate ecosystem.

When floodplains are developed for agriculture or construction, devices like bulk-heads are installed to stop the natural meandering process of the river or stream, which is what creates new wetlands and replenishes existing ones. In other situations, diking or damming is used to create ponds and lakes – diverting water from entering a wetland. Likewise, the dredging of a stream can lower the surrounding water table, and dry up adjacent wetlands.

What you can do
Nationally, almost 75 percent of all wetlands are owned by private citizens, according to the EPA, which means we can all do our part to support their future:

- If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, thoroughly check your clothing and equipment and remove as much of the mud and vegetation as possible to reduce the spread of invasive plant species, which can have devastating effects on an ecosystem.

- If you own property near a wetland, maintain a buffer strip of open space between the area and any development.

- Reduce the amount of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides applied to your lawn or garden, and consider drip irrigation, which allows plants to absorb more water – thereby reducing runoff.

- Research and support laws and programs that promote preservation and restoration of wetland areas.

Swamps like this one in Louisiana may look like they’re robust and stubborn, but they’re very sensitive, delicately balanced ecosystems where overfishing and even just a little pollution can devastate.
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How to help your wetlands survive humanity|Overfishing and lakes
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