Wetlands essential to the environment
By Bob Audette
A swamp by any other name is a wetland, a bog, a marsh or a fen.
What was once considered nuisance property, a breeding ground of mosquitoes, noxious weeds and other generally offensive species, is now recognized as essential to the environment and indispensable to the quality of the nation's water supply.
"In healthy wetlands, mosquitoes are eaten very quickly," said David Burns. "Most mosquitoes breed in gutters, storm drains and old tires."
Burns, the watershed coordinator for the Dutchess County Environmental Management Council, delivered a message that "All of our water resources are inter-related."
Burns spoke about wetlands at a June 30 meeting at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Millbrook.
Burns said there are six watersheds that exist in whole or in part in the county - the Hudson River, Wappingers, Roeloff Jansen, Ten Mile, Fishkill and Croton watersheds.
"A watershed is the land that water flows across and under on its way to a river, stream and lake and eventually to the ocean," said Burns.
He said the water cycle - which includes precipitation, infiltration, evaporation and evapo-transportation - is driven by the sun.
"Infiltration of precipitation into the water table varies, depending on soils, but averages about 30 percent," said Burns.
"Where groundwater meets the surface you find streams and wetlands," he said.
Burns defined a wetland as an area of land that supports a predominance of wetland plants that push out upland plants because of the presence of wetland hydrology or streams.
"Most trees don't like to have 'wet feet,'" said Burns. "They might last a few years, but eventually they die out."
Burns said flora that is normally found in wetlands includes ferns, cattails, skunk cabbage and sedges. He said many intrusive, non-native plants - such as purple loosestrife [sic], water chestnut and phragmites have found their way into wetlands and threaten the delicate balance established over the years.
Burns said that of the 2.4 million acres of wetlands in the state, seven percent exist in the Hudson Valley.
"The majority of wetlands in the state can be found in the Lake Plains and in the Adirondack Mountains," he said.
He said the state lost 22,000 acres of wetlands in the '80s and '90s but gained 39,000 acres.
"But the only area of a net loss of wetlands has been the Hudson Valley," he said.
Burns said gains in wetlands can be attributed to the reversion of agricultural lands, 27,000 acres, and altered hydrology, 12,000 acres. Burns said altered hydrology is often a result of beaver activity. When agricultural lands are no longer being used, canals and drainage ditches that were used to dry out the land are filled in and the soil often reverts to wetlands.
Losses of wetlands in the state are attributed to aggregate mining, development and agriculture, said Burns.
Burns said the state regulates wetlands 12.4 acres and larger, which includes a 100 foot buffer to protect the wetlands. The Army Corps of Engineers regulates any wetlands smaller than that as long as the wetlands are connected to a navigable waterway.
Burns said this leaves many small, unconnected wetlands to the mercy of local governments and developers.
WETLANDS EXPERT: David Burns,
the watershed coordinator for the
Dutchess County Environmental
Management Council, speaks to a
small crowd at the Cornell
Cooperative Extension in Millbrook
about the wetlands of Dutchess
County: (Photo by Bob Audette)
"In a study done by the Fish and Wildlife Service, 60 percent of wetlands in the Town of Washington were discovered to be unconnected and therefore unregulated," he said.
"Several municipalities though, including Pawling, Lagrange, Fishkill, Pleasant Valley and Poughkeepsie, have their own regulations in place to protect wetlands," said Burns.
Burns said wetlands store water and slowly release it into streams instead of allowing it to be moved at a very fast rate through the system.
"Impervious surfaces such as blacktop, roads, sidewalks and rooftops increase the flow of water in our local waterways," said Burns.
"If you fill in wetlands, it can affect water quantity and quality," said Burns, who said rain and storm water, instead of recharging groundwater supplies, is channeled into streams which sends the water on its way to the ocean instead of being stored for local use.
This increased flow, he said, erodes banks and over-widens streams and rivers. When the flow drops off, water is so shallow it can't support aquatic life, he added.
"Wetlands serve as natural reservoirs," said Burns.
Burns said wetlands also help to filter sediment by decreasing the water flow, giving suspended particles a chance to settle out of the water.
Burns said there are microorganisms in wetlands that help break down and significantly reduce levels of natural and human created pollution as it filters through the wetlands.
"Though sometimes pollution is so great that vegetation has to actually be removed and treated as hazardous materials," said Burns.
Burns said that half of all of New York's protected native species are part of the wetlands ecosystem.
"Wetlands are one of the most ecologically productive systems on the earth," said Burns. "They convert sunlight and nutrients into a food source for many animals."
"Wetlands are helpful in keeping water in the watershed, though wetlands don't reach groundwater," said Burns. "Groundwater actually comes up to create wetlands."
The EMC was formed in 1972 by the Dutchess County Legislature to inform and advise county and local governments on matters affecting the environment of the county. Its further mission is to educate decision-makers and the general public on these matters.
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