2006: Wetlands an undervalued resource

Think about the swampy, nondescript areas on golf courses that are marked as water hazards even though they have little or no water in them. Such wetland areas are among the most important, yet most undervalued and least understood parts of the natural environment.

Since European settlers first arrived, about half of the wetlands in the lower 48 states have disappeared. As many as 60,000 acres (94 square miles) of wetlands have been lost each year since the 1950s, despite the benefits they provide:

  • Wetlands provide habitat for thousands of species of aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals, including water lilies, turtles, crocodiles, herons and moose.
  • Wetlands provide a catch basin for rainwater and can help prevent flooding.
  • Wetlands help filter pollutants from water and prevent them from reaching rivers, streams and lakes, thus protecting other habitats and drinking water supplies.
  • Wetlands provide recreational areas for activities such as fishing, bird watching, photography and hunting. Tens of millions of people spend millions each year on such activities.

The ability of wetlands (fens, marshes, bogs and swamps) to collect and store rainwater becomes more critical as the U.S. population rises. Development not only affects water quantity, it affects water quality.

The Center for Watershed Protection in Ellicott City, Md., has found that when 10 percent of a watershed is covered with impervious surfaces such as pavement, the water quality degrades in nearby bodies such as lakes and streams. If such a small amount of concrete can produce such serious consequences, it is easy to understand the stresses caused on bodies of water in large metropolitan and other highly developed areas. Preservation of wetlands can help reduce these stresses and flood-related damage.

For example, if fewer wetlands had been filled in or drained, flood damage caused by the Mississippi River flood of 1993 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 could have been reduced significantly.

The ability of wetlands to filter pollutants from the water cannot be overemphasized.

Since the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, the nation’s water is cleaner, mainly because of better treatment at point sources of pollution – which comes from a single or discrete point, such as a factory or wastewater treatment plant. However, about 40 percent of the nation’s bodies of water still do not meet water quality goal, a figure that indicates much work must be done to protect our water resources.

Most water pollution today comes from nonpoint sources, which occurs when rainwater collects pollutants over ground and transports them via surface or subsurface drainage.

Nonpoint source pollution includes improper application of pesticides and fertilizers. Wetlands can help prevent nonpoint source pollution by acting as a filter for polluted water, removing pollutants before they enter a lake or river.

Wetlands on golf courses can provide similar benefits. Besides acting as a natural filtration system, wetlands provide habitat for plants and animals and are home to 31 percent of all plant species found in the 48 contiguous states.

On a golf course, such wetlands are home to high concentrations of plant species and animals. After all, shouldn’t one of the charms of playing golf be to enjoy the local flora and fauna?

Wetlands are a critical part of our ecosystem. All members of the golf community – including architects, superintendents and golfers – have a role to play in helping to preserve and restore these valuable resources.

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