Wetlands, or marshes, fens, bogs, and swamps, are the link between land and water. Wetlands include trees, grasses, shrubs, moss, and other plants that require at least some water coverage. Wetlands provide an abundance of essential ecosystem services, including:
- Water storage, storm protection, and flood mitigation
- Water purification through retention of nutrients, sediments, and pollutants
- Groundwater recharge
- Essential habitat for many plants and animals, including over 90 percent of the roughly 200 Great Lakes fish species that occur in the Great Lakes
- Shoreline stabilization and erosion control.
Today, wetlands degradation and destruction is occurring more rapidly than in any other ecosystem. Since the early 1800s, 40 percent, or 4.273 million acres, of Michigan’s wetlands have been destroyed due to drainage, farming, housing, roads construction, and other development. Nearly two-thirds of the wetlands in the Great Lakes Basin have been destroyed, according to the Great Lakes Information Network.
Wetlands destruction has increased flood and drought damage, nutrient runoff and water pollution, and shoreline erosion, and triggered a decline in wildlife populations. Destruction of wetlands is also detrimental to our region’s economy: recreation like fishing, hunting, and wildlife watching generate more than $22 billion annually. According to the Brookings Institute, restoration of the Great Lakes will create economic benefits of at least $50 billion and create thousands of jobs. Wetlands restoration is a major component of the overall Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
The good news is that despite the significant amount of wetland destruction since European settlement in Michigan, 6.47 million acres of wetlands remain. Thanks to Michigan’s wetland protection law, losses have slowed dramatically since 1979. The total decline of wetland since 1978 is estimated at 41,000 acres, with the rate of decline slowing between the periods 1978 to 1998 (loss of approximately 1,642 acres per year) and 1998 to 2005 (approximately 1,157 acres per year). Making sure the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality applies and enforces the law is a duty of every citizen.
Local governments may also take action to protect wetlands from development by enacting ordinances that meet state guidelines. Educating and organizing your community to enact and/or enforce an ordinance is another way of stopping wetland destruction.
Destruction of wetlands is a systemic problem that calls for cooperative planning among communities, nonprofit organizations, governments, and industry. In Michigan, land use planning and new development must take into account the essential services of wetlands for preservation and restoration to be successful. Nationally, perhaps the highest priority wetland habitat to protect and restore is the coastal wetland.
An effective strategy for protecting coastal wetlands includes a coastal marine spatial planning effort focused on the shared goal of identifying future competitive uses and impacts. Essential stakeholders includes coastal community governments, shippers, port authorities, recreational and commercial fishing interests, the Coast Guard, pipeline companies, utilities, and state and local resource agencies.
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