Wetlands


They are more than bathtubs for thousands of croaking frogs. They are more than breeding grounds for swarms of mosquitoes. They are more than the landing strips of fat Canada geese. Wetlands are often shining prospects to enterprising developers—never mind that they play a role in the water table[2], and make for soggy basements.

Wetlands account for about one third of the land base in Ontario, and they used to account for more[1].  But the Europeans who settled in Canada in the 16th century rapidly set about multiplying, and their descendents became enamored with marking out large farm fields, raising suburbia on damp ground, building impressive dams, and spreading a wonder-work of roads and highways [2]. The wetlands just happened to be in their way some of the time. ‘Some of the time’ as in 65% of wetlands in the Great Lakes Basin have been drained and developed.  In all of Southern Ontario roughly 70% of pre-European-expansionist wetlands are gone [2]. (The word roughly is used since the last comprehensive study of wetland loss in Ontario was done roughly 20 years ago [2]. So things may be slightly better or much worse.)

According to irate landowners on Ottawa’s western outskirts the extermination of bogs, fens, swamps, and etc. may be a very good thing. A group of about 60 citizens are demanding that the government fix up drainage pipes that they allege are “causing the province to designate their land protected wetlands, potentially hurting property values in the area” [3]. A capitalist would (according to stereotype) nod sagely and agree that wetlands are a real estate liability which might be effectively neutralized simply by digging the right sort of trenches[4]. Once a wetland has been drained the land can become a subdivision for families in need of homes, a field for farmers in need of dirt, even a school for ungrateful children in need of brains. Most importantly, adds the capitalist, all of these homes and fields and schools translate into money rather than the pond scum that was there before.

This is where the tree-huggers chime in and say that we are selling our souls to the devil. Wetlands are acknowledged as one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth [5], approaching the class of tropical rainforests. They support vast populations of birds, amphibians, fish, reptiles, and creepy-crawlies, not to mention flora [5]; the capitalist should swallow what was just said about pond scum. Also, if one ignores the flowers and cuddly creatures for a moment, it becomes obvious that wetlands have a large impact on the state of the water table and we might not know what we are messing with. Marshy ground acts like a sponge to soak up water, reducing flooding (like the spring runoff that turns your back yard to mud), and then releasing water during drier periods[6]. Wetlands improve water quality by breaking down or soaking up organic waste and sediment, they combat erosion, they renew the groundwater [6], and (the tree-huggers’ favourite) wetlands absorb excess carbon in the atmosphere and thus fight global warming![5]

(Then again, if you think global warming is a ‘myth’ the point on carbon absorption might not be so winning.)

And the tree-huggers aren’t done. They could continue for hours, extolling the virtues of Ontario’s soggy, unsung heroes. On the other hand the capitalists would probably match them, patiently saying that although marsh marigolds are nice, herons are not productive and a bulrush will never be a dollar bill. Where there could be nice rows of suburban dwellings, people can’t be expected to live happily in swamps. So, to drain or not to drain? Are you a capitalist or a tree-hugger, or maybe something in between?

References

  1. www.ecoissues.ca
  2. www2.ctic.purdue.edu
  3. http://www.cbc.ca/canada/ottawa/story/2008/07/03/ot-wetland-080703.html
  4. www.askthebuilder.com
  5. www.atlas.nrcan.gc.ca
  6. www.acfonline.org.au/articles

 

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