Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Don’t Take Wetlands for Granted

That's Gabe's foot on my article in the Franklin Country Gazette.

Don’t Take Wetlands for Granted

This summer, as we drove by a vast and scenic labyrinth of grasses and gleaming water, I remembered something my grandfather once said to me: “those do nothing but breed mosquitoes. They should all be filled in.” He was talking about the costal marshes of Galveston, Texas.

On this recent trip to Galveston, my family watched from the beach as something orange and formless drifted down the coast. Thankfully it wasn’t oil from BP’s spill - it was just seaweed, filled with tiny shrimp for the shore birds to feast on. But our trip was colored by the possibility that this might be the last time that we see the area alive with birds and crabs and native plants.

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina we as a country are growing more aware that coastal wetlands offer a layer of hurricane protection to low-lying coastal cities. This is of particular importance to the city of Galveston, which was the victim of the nation’s worst natural disaster when, in 1900, a hurricane killed thousands. Exposed as it is, the Galveston area needs all the protection it can get, and BP’s oil spill is making it clear that its protective wetlands, too, are vulnerable.

Here in Massachusetts, our wetlands are similar buffers against natural disaster. When too much rain fell in too short a time this March, pavement and compacted lawns prevented the water from soaking naturally into the earth. Overloaded storm drains couldn’t contain the water, and small backyard streams burst their banks, filling roads and basements, because the water had nowhere else to go.

My own house stands mere feet above wetland, so I assumed that we would soon be underwater, too. But to my relief, the water level of the wetland varied only slightly. That wetland is the fringe of the Charles River watershed, which is, in essence, a very broad and slow-moving stream. The water entering the wetland seeps lazily from one vernal pool to the next as it trickles down the slope of the land, into the Charles, and down into the ground itself, to recharge the water-table below.

This area is so broad and sponge-like that it was able to absorb the torrent of water. It also slowed the water: it took a full twenty-four hours after the rain stopped for the flood to arrive ten miles downstream in Medfield, where it finally forced a closure of route 109. At that location, the road crosses a swath of Charles River wetlands three-quarters of a mile wide. Usually, that region looks like a field full of shrubs, but for that wet week, it looked like a lake. Had those wetlands been filled in because they did nothing but “breed mosquitoes”, there would have been catastrophic flood damage. Instead, there was just the one leisurely road closure.

Being at the head of the Charles river, Franklin, Bellingham, and Milford business are being targeted by the Environmental Protection Agency for new regulations surrounding the runoff from parking lots and roofs. The owners of large areas of impermeable surfaces may soon be required to route their storm water through engineered wetland. This is because wetland acts as a filter, removing phosphorous and other water pollutants before they contaminate the river. Should they pass, these regulations may be onerous for the business owners, but the environmental impact is potentially huge.

To this day pop culture perpetuates the myth of wetlands as being scary, dark, rotting and stinking homes of monsters, but in reality wetlands brim with flowering plants, stately trees, handsome autumn foliage, fascinating wildlife, and scenic views. Wetlands suffer from such bad reputation that in order to be accepted by the gardening public, they have had to be rebranded “water gardens”.

There are different types of wetlands to be seen at parks throughout Massachusetts. Salt marshes, for example, are visible from the Shining Sea Bikeway at Woods Hole. This is a good location for watching ospreys and red-winged blackbirds.

For the adventurous, a half-log trail snakes out into a white cedar bog at Ponkapoag Trail at the Blue Hills Reservation, just south of Boston. White cedar bogs are quite rare in Massachusetts. Three kinds of carnivorous plants live among the bog’s prehistoric-looking mosses. Be sure to bring shoes that can get wet.

Closer to home you can visit an example of our more common swamps and ponds at the Massachusetts Audubon’s Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Norfolk. There, a solid deck walkway - safe enough for strollers - leads through wetland and across a pond. Massive highbrush blueberry and swamp azalea bushes make a tunnel around the walkway, and armies of turtles laze among water lilies and exotic-looking pickerel weed.

There may be a few mosquitoes at these landscapes, but for such beautiful scenery, they are worth it.


Bluestem said...

Another nice article. You must get a lot of interesting wildlife when you have a wetland in your backyard.

Michelle said...

Thanks Bluestem!