Wetlands primer: Don't repeat the same mistakes of 40 years ago

Lost in the crazy Trump show is a startling move by his EPA:

In 1976, 3,000 commercial fishermen and residents signed a petition that pleaded with state officials to do something about the runoff that plagued our estuaries and threatened their ability to make a living fishing. Many of these folks were from Hyde County, and they saw firsthand vast areas of wetlands converted to “superfarms” and other land uses. Trillions of gallons of drainage flowed directly into salty estuaries. This runoff made these essential fish nurseries much less productive for shrimp, oysters, flounder, trout and other commercially and recreationally important marine life.

This regulatory rollback proposed by EPA to eliminate most existing regulatory safeguards for wetlands in our state will extinguish our fishing industry. We know from the past experiences of our fishing forefathers that no wetlands means no seafood.

If there's one thing Republicans are masters at, it's forgetting the past. Or acting like they forget, which is even worse. You can take virtually any environmental movement of the last 50 years, and you'll see a cycle of progress and regress, needed changes gained and then subsequently lost. But when it comes to something as important as wetlands, what's lost cannot be gained back again. They're not just a breeding ground for seafood resources, they're also a critical habitat for stationary and migratory avian species. But preserving wetlands is also good business, because they can greatly mitigate losses from hurricanes and flooding:

The benefits from wetlands in reducing flood damages depends both on their physical capacity to reduce flood extents, as well as the value of the assets they protect. Wetlands have greatest value where they are the most extensive (e.g., in Maryland) or in front of the greatest assets (e.g., in New York). The damages avoided in New York due to wetlands was 30 times higher in absolute value compared to Maryland. On the other hand, New York’s total damages were reduced by only 0.4%, whereas in Maryland, wetlands reduced the state’s total damages by nearly 30%. Evidence suggests that in Maryland, wetlands have high risk reduction potential in areas where they are abundant39. Highly urbanised areas on the other hand, are characterised by minimal wetland presence and high asset values. In these areas, despite low relative contributions to risk reduction, the few wetlands that remain can still have high absolute values40.

In the local study, salt marsh presence in Barnegat Bay, Ocean County is shown to reduce annual flood risk by up to 70% across elevations and over a wide range of storm characteristics. These marshes also reduced the maximum annual risk to properties behind them at all elevations. The positive influence of marshes was most evident at the highest risk (i.e. lowest elevation) locations. At low elevations, areas with marshes have considerably lower numbers of properties which contributes to the lower average annual losses (Fig. 3). A better recognition of the high flood risks in these areas and thus the value of not developing over marshes can hopefully lead to more conservation and restoration41.

These results also show the upstream benefits of wetland conservation. Townships at the upstream end of estuaries benefited from the cumulative surge reduction impact of wetlands several kilometres downstream. Even though these upstream townships often had few wetlands within their borders, their support for downstream wetland conservation and restoration could yield important risk reduction benefits. Other simulations of marsh effects in tidal channels have also shown that marsh die-off within the main channel can significantly increase flooding further up the channel29.

Back to NC's fishermen, and their calls for help:

Life as a commercial fisher isn’t easy. We battle weather that seems to grow more extreme each year and face severe business pressures including competition from foreign imports and management questions about how best to allocate and regulate the seafood we catch. The biggest threat to our livelihood, however, is degradation of water quality and fisheries habitats. We can’t earn a living if estuaries are no longer fertile and safe places to grow and harvest seafood.

Our existing laws ensure that everyone does their part to keep our estuaries healthy. Those estuaries collect water from thousands of small streams and wetlands as far inland as Durham and Raleigh. Without essential protections, the estuaries we fish will not only be jeopardized by wetland loss in the coastal plain, but by all of the pollution that flows downstream.

There's a lot of work to be done here in the Piedmont to minimize the contamination of rivers and streams that feed to the coast. But if we lose those coastal wetlands, it might not make much difference what we do upstream. That region will die a slow death.

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