What are Wetlands and Why are They Important?

Put simply, a "wetland" is exactly as it sounds - wet land. It is an area which is submerged or saturated with water for a long enough period of time that it becomes it's own unique ecosystem. Wetlands may be stretches of land which are wet on their own due to topographical or geological features directing the flow of water above or below ground, or they may be adjacent to or connected to a body of surface water, like a pond or stream.

In the United States there were several centuries where wetlands were seen as nuisance lands, something to be dealt with or drained. Here in Massachusetts, it is estimated that we lost approximately 31% of our wetlands by the end of the 20th century. We now know, however, that these waterlogged areas which may appear unassuming at first glance are critically important to the wellbeing of our natural world for a variety of reasons.

Wetlands act as nature's water filter, similar in principle to the one you may have on your faucet at home - as water passes through a wetland as part of the water cycle, the soils and plants in the wetlands work to process many of the contaminants or particles within the water that it may accumulate as it runs across the landscape or passes through drains and gutters. This natural water filtration is key to having water resources free of silt, pollutants, or any variety of other contaminants, and all in a way that is cost free and requires little to no maintenance for people. 

In terms of their importance to biodiversity and animal life, wetlands swing well above their weight. They make up just about 5% of the area of the United States, yet host over a third of the country's threatened or endangered animal species. Massachusetts hosts a number of amphibians, and bird species which rely on wetlands as a part of their life cycle, particularly along the coast.  

Wetlands are also an important player in flood mitigation. Of course being characteristically wet, and usually lying in the location where water naturally wishes to travel towards, many wetlands have a massive absorptive capacity during rainfall events. In addition to this, the specially adapted plants in a wetland serve to physically retain the movement and outflow of water during such events.

These are only a few reasons why these ecosystems are so valuable to us as people, as well as to the health of our natural world.

In recognition of the importance of wetlands, with their protection and preservation being in the common interest, in 1972 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed the Wetlands Protection Act (310 CMR 10.00). The act codified the protected status of these areas, and created a 100-foot buffer zone for wetlands, and a 200-foot buffer zone for rivers and streams, where-in actions to "remove, fill, dredge, or alter" are strictly prohibited, pending the issuance of a permit from the local Conservation Commission.  

If you have any questions about wetlands, the Wetlands Protection Act, or wish to apply for a project that may be within the buffer zones please reach out towards the contact info provided in the side-bar.