Why Protect Our Wetlands?

 Wetlands are places of beauty and wonder, of muck and mystery.   Today we recognize the valuable functions that natural wetlands perform for us and for the environment.   In past centuries, however, wetlands often were regarded as wastelands and were destroyed or degraded at an alarming rate.  In the lower 48 States, approximately 54% of the original 200 million acres of wetlands were lost between the 1600's and the 1980's (U.S. EPA 1988).  In Massachusetts, roughly one-third of pre-colonial wetlands have been destroyed; most of the remaining 600,000 acres of wetlands have been altered, damaged, or polluted (Wetlands Restoration & Banking Program 1997).  To find out which states have the best and worst wetland protection records, click map. 

     Functions and Benefits of Wetlands
FLOOD CONTROL -- Wetlands act like giant sponges by absorbing and storing floodwaters.  Later, the water is released slowly and steadily rather than in a sudden burst.  This runoff storage capacity can lower flood height, volume, and velocity.

STORM DAMAGE PREVENTION --  Coastal and riparian ( river and stream bank) wetlands protect uplands from the ravages of storms.   Wetland vegetation buffers uplands against erosion and, through friction,  dissipates the energy of wave action and stormflows.

GROUNDWATER PROTECTION -- Wetlands are natural, living filters that can improve water quality and prevent groundwater contamination.  They trap sediments, absorb and remove excess nutrients, and process chemical and organic waste.

PROTECTION OF PUBLIC AND PRIVATE WATER SUPPLIES -- In Massachusetts, many public and private wells are close to rivers, streams, and other surface waters. Therefore,  the water quality of the entire watershed -- aquifer and surface waters alike --is important to public health.  Wetlands act as natural water treatment plants to maintain water quality and prevent contamination.

POLLUTION PREVENTION -- Excess fertilizers (nitrates and phosphates), pesticides, and heavy metals are taken up into the tissues of many wetland plants.   Many pollutants, as well as human and animal waste, are broken down into less harmful substances  by soil bacteria.

WILDLIFE HABITAT -- Wetlands are the primary habitat for many plant and animal species, and provide a source of food, water, and shelter to even more year-round and migratory species.   Wetlands also are connective corridors that allow wildlife to move freely and safely between habitats for purposes of breeding, feeding and migration.

FISHERIES PROTECTION --  Most commercial and recreational fish use coastal marshes or inland wetlands for spawning and/or nursery grounds.  Due to their high productivity, wetlands produce great volumes of decayed organic material, called detritus, on which many small invertebrates and fish feed.  Riparian wetlands moderate water temperatures and absorb sediments and pollutants, maintaining the health of the adjacent river or stream and the fish therein.

PROTECTION OF LAND CONTAINING SHELLFISH -- Coastal marshes, estuaries and mudflats are the principal habitat of many commercial shellfish.  Filter-feeding shellfish such as oysters, mussels, and clams are sensitive to water-borne pollutants; shellfish beds are often closed if fecal coliform bacteria or other  pathogen levels are high enough to risk human health.  Wetland vegetation not only provides a steady source of organic detritus on which shellfish feed, but also filters out pollutants to improve water quality.
 For the full text of Fact sheets of Functions and Values of Riparian Areas, click on Riverways.

               Who protects our wetlands?

THE WETLANDS PROTECTION ACT -- Since the passage of the Jones Act in 1963, Massachusetts has become a leader in wetland protection.  The Jones Act was the first wetlands protection statute in the nation and required developers to acquire permits before building on or filling in coastal wetlands.  In 1965, the Massachusetts passed the Hatch Law which extended protection to inland wetlands.  In  1972, these laws were combined into one bigger law, the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, and broadened to protect beaches, dunes, wetland banks, and areas subject to flooding.  In 1996, passage of  the Rivers Protection Act created a new resource area -- a buffer zone of 200 feet along the sides of rivers and permanent streams in most of the cities and towns of the Commonwealth.   These laws are administered and enforced by the Division of Wetlands and Waterways  of the Bureau of Resource Protection within the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

THE CLEAN WATER ACT SECTION 404 --  The Clean Water Act establishes the major federal program that regulates activities in waters and wetlands of the United States.  Under this law, the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters and most wetlands requires a permit from the Army Corp. of Engineers. Activities that are regulated under Section 404  include fills for development, water resource projects (such as dams and levees), infrastructure development (such as highways and airports), and conversion of wetlands to uplands for farming and forestry.The Corps evaluates permit applications based one 2 standards: 1) environmental criteria for permitting projects in wetlands, and 2) factors to determine if the project is in the public interest.

ACTION IN CONGRESS -- For current information on wetland-related and other laws, see the Library of Congress's  Thomas Legislative Services at http://thomas.loc.gov.

To find out what organizations are currently involved in managing and protecting wetlands, click Stakeholders.

This page  was created by Wendy Dalia, Leslie Driscoll, and Marsha Salett.
Last updated 5/19/98.

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