Wetlands are highly productive and biologically diverse systems that enhance water quality, control erosion, maintain stream flows, sequester carbon, and provide a home to at least one third of all threatened and endangered species.
Wetlands are important because they:
- improve water quality
- provide wildlife habitat
- maintain ecosystem productivity
- reduce coastal storm damage
- provide recreational opportunities
- improve the water supply
- provide opportunities for education
Why Are Wetlands Important?
In the not too distant past, wetlands were regarded as wastelands. Most people felt that they were places to be avoided, and it was common practice to drain them, fill them or treat them as dumping grounds. A study published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990 revealed a startling fact: more than half of the 221 million acres of wetlands that existed in the lower 48 states in the late 1700s have been destroyed.
Today, we know that wetlands provide many important services to the environment and to the public. They offer critical habitat for fish, waterfowl and other wildlife, they purify polluted waters, and they help check the destructive power of floods and storms. They also provide a wide variety of recreational opportunities such as fishing, hunting, photography, and wildlife observation. As these and many other wetland functions and values described below have become more widely known, wetlands are increasingly seen as productive and valuable resources worthy of protection and restoration.
- Water Quality: Wetlands act as natural water purifiers, filtering sediment and absorbing many pollutants in surface waters. In some wetland systems, this cleansing function also enhances the quality of groundwater supplies.
- Reduction of Coastal Storm Damage: Coastal wetlands help to blunt the force of major storms. For example, mangrove forests in south Florida and salt marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts reduce flooding, coastal erosion, and property damage during major storms.
- Flood Control and Streamflow Maintenance: Wetlands along rivers and streams absorb energy and store water during storms, which reduces downstream flood damage and lessens the risk of flash floods. The slow release of this stored water over time can help keep streams flowing during periods of drought.
- Streambank Stabilization and Erosion Control:Wetland vegetation binds the soil on streambanks and riparian wetlands, preventing excessive erosion and sedimentation downstream.
- Wildlife Habitat: Wetlands provide habitat for many species of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals that are uniquely adapted to aquatic environments. Upland wildlife like deer, elk and bears commonly use wetlands for food and shelter. Wetlands are particularly vital to many migratory bird species. For example, wood ducks, mallards, and sandhill cranes winter in flooded bottomland forests and marshes in the southern U.S., and prairie potholes provide breeding grounds for over 50% of North American waterfowl.
- Fish and Shellfish Habitat: Freshwater and marine life including trout, striped bass, pike, sunfish, crappie, crab, and shrimp rely on wetlands for food, cover, spawning, and nursery grounds. Between 60% and 90% of U.S. commercial fisheries depend on wetlands.
- Habitat for Threatened and Endangered Species: About one-third of all plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered species in the United States depend on wetlands for their survival, including whooping cranes, American crocodiles, the dwarf lake iris and several orchid species.
- Specialized Plant Habitat: Nearly 7000 plant species live in U.S. wetlands, many of which can only survive in these wet environments.
- Ecosystem Productivity: Some wetland types are among the most productive ecosystems on earth. A stand of cordgrass in a salt marsh can produce more plant material and store more energy per acre than any agricultural crop except cultivated sugar cane. Nutrients and plant material flushed from some wetland systems during storms provide essential food for plants, fish, and wildlife in estuaries and other downstream ecosystems.
- Recreational Opportunities: Many wetlands contain a diversity of plants, animals and water features that provide beautiful places for sightseeing, hiking, fishing, hunting, boating, bird watching, and photography.
- Water Supply: Some wetlands help provide clean, plentiful water supplies. For example, wetlands in Florida's Everglades help recharge the Biscayne Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for the Miami metropolitan area.
- Education: Ecological, cultural, and historic resources run abundant in our nation's wetlands, and provide countless opportunities for environmental education and public awareness programs.
Last updated: May 5, 2016