EcoMyths: Does living near a wetland mean your home is at greater risk for being flooded?

June 27, 2013

Mary Beth Sammons

Peoria Audubon Society
Ducks in Peoria make the shallow wetland area their home.

When last April's massive storms waterlogged basements across the Midwest, Environmental Protection Agency and municipal hotlines were flooded with calls from angry homeowners blaming the damage on the proximity of wetlands to their homes. The calls keep coming, says Gary Sullivan, PhD, and Senior Restoration Ecologist for The Wetlands Initiative, who points out wetlands provide natural water-storage features on the landscape—holding the water in when it rains, then releasing it slowly.

The misconception comes because homeowners who think they live “near” a wetland, most likely live “in” an area that was once a wetland that was destroyed or drained, says Mark Maffei, Ph.D, a wildlife biologist who used to work for  the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service in Florida, consulting on the Everglades wetland restoration project. He currently serves on the boards of the Natural Land Institute and The Wetlands Initiative.

Facts:

In Illinois—as in other upper Midwestern Corn Belt states—nearly 90 percent of the state’s wetlands have been drained during the last 200 years for agriculture or urban development, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “All those wetlands are now gone, and that reduces the capacity to stave off floods by 90 percent, not to mention the damage to the habitat—80 percent of birds depend on wetlands,” says Sullivan.

Currently, in the U.S., the pace of destruction is most extreme in the coastal wetlands of Louisiana, which shelter New Orleans from hurricane. Thousands of square miles of former Lousiana wetlands have been filled in or developed. Florida’s wetlands—the Everglades —have also been hard hit. Without the Everglades, much of South Florida would simply dry up, Maffei says. Once touting two million acres of wetlands, today Florida has only half of that, he adds.

Like Illinois, Florida has experienced tremendous damage to its natural habitat from the destruction of its wetlands, but Floridians also face a crisis regarding access to fresh water, because without the filtration protection of the wetlands, saline from the ocean is pushing into their water supply system and also, the region’s rainfall is not replenishing the ground-water fresh water supplies.

Illinois ranks sixth in overall percentage of wetland loss, and fifth in terms of acres. That puts Illinois in the top ten percent of states with the greatest overall wetland loss over the past 200 years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Solution: Restoring Wetlands Will Help Ease Flooding

The restoration of wetlands is vital, largely to prevent flooding, but also because they are valuable to us and our communities for to establishing environmental balance and the well being of humans. Wetlands are valuable in many ways according to Dr. Sullivan:

  • Improving water quality
  • Reducing flood damage
  • Contributing to groundwater and surface water recharge
  • Supporting habitat for fish and wildlife
  • Providing educational, recreational, and research opportunities
  • Restoration efforts include wetland mitigation projects:

In the Everglades, scientists and engineers have created or restored wetlands to lessen the impact of deliberate wetland loss. In DuPage County, IL., The Wetlands Initiative has embarked on an aggressive project with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County to restore drained wetlands along three miles of degraded stream, bisecting both the St. James Farm and the Blackwell forest preserves.

One Green Thing You Can Do:

  • Support organizations working to restore wetlands, like the Wetlands Initiative and the National Wildlife Federation.

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