Wetlands were once considered undesirable—often described as transitional zones of land and water, the United States government enforced policies in the past that encouraged the draining of wetlands to make room for infrastructure and agriculture according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Service. But as a productive and multipurpose ecosystem, wetlands provide pivotal ecological services for people and wildlife alike. Thanks to conservation efforts, wetlands are now regarded by the government as valuable ecosystems that better enhance human health, wildlife, the economy and water quality.
In 2009, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a study that showed there were an estimated 110.1 million acres of wetlands in the conterminous United States. The state of Texas itself contains millions of acres of wetlands, offering Texans the opportunity to visit and learn about wetlands and their importance to our water supply.
What are wetlands? How do they work?
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Service, wetlands are areas of land that are dependent on the presence of water at all or part of the time. Also referred to as marshes, bogs, swamps and bayous, wetlands provide a habitat for both aquatic and terrestrial species and a variety of plants.
While wetlands vary due to differences in soils, topography, hydrology and other factors, they can usually be categorized as two different types. Coastal or tidal wetlands are found along ocean coasts and mix both freshwater and seawater to form an environment with varying salinities. Inland wetlands are most commonly found nearby rivers and streams, in depressions surrounded by dry land, by lakes and ponds and other low-lying areas. Man-made wetlands have been developed to treat water coming from an outside source, such as a river, before it enters a water treatment program.
Wetlands perform a variety of tasks, from improving water quality to reducing flood damage. These water bodies can absorb and filter sediments, nutrients and pollutants that would otherwise damage other water sources due to its ability to break them down naturally. This function also helps reduce flood damage.
Wetland plants help slow floodwaters, reducing the potential for erosion during the flood, and over time, slowly releasing floodwater into rivers, underground aquifers and the atmosphere. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a single acre of wetland can hold up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater, which can save the United States billions of dollars a year in flood-related repair costs.
Due to its ability to hold nutrients, wetlands can increase the food supply that benefits invertebrates all the way up to mammals. Wetlands also serve as a habitat for thousands of animal species. The EPA considers wetlands to be one of the most productive and diverse ecosystems in the world, along with rain forests and coral reefs. For example, around 90% of Texas’ salt and freshwater fish species utilize wetlands for food and spawning.
After years of draining wetlands, these marshy areas are now recognized for their value and are protected ecosystems regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Clean Water Act. The Emergency Wetlands Resources Act of 1986 requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct studies of the country’s wetlands and report their results to Congress each decade.
Where can I find wetlands to visit?
Even though Texas is often considered a relatively dry state, it has millions of acres of wetlands that vary in purpose and size.
In the southern part of the Brazos River basin in Brazoria County, the Justin Hurst Wildlife Management Area is part of the Central Coast Wetlands Ecosystem Project, whose mission is “to provide for sound biological conservation of all wildlife resources within the central coast of Texas for the public’s common benefit.”
With nearly 12,000 acres of protected land, visitors can walk on the Live Oak Loop nature trail and witness the wildlife that resides in the wetlands. Brazoria County also has the Nannie Stringfellow Wildlife Management Area, which has approximately 3,666 acres for wetland and bald eagle mitigation. It is located near the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail and visitors can include the Nannie M. Stringfellow Wildlife Management Area on their way through the Brazoria and San Bernard Loops.
Further north, the Lake Waco Wetlands were created after the Waco City Council voted to increase the level of Lake Waco by seven feet in 2000. The increase of water in Lake Waco caused habitat loss, which resulted in a habitat mitigation project and the Lake Waco Wetlands. These wetlands span for more than 180 acres and house different plants, mammals, insects and amphibians. According to the city of Waco, nearly 11 million gallons of water are pumped through the wetland per day from the Bosque River, a tributary of the Brazos, into the reservoir. The Lake Waco Wetlands has a research and education center that is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as some Saturdays. There are also night hikes through the Lake Waco Wetlands available every Friday night at 7:30 p.m. this upcoming April.
For information on the Lake Waco Wetlands, call 254-848-9654 go here.
For more on the Justin Hurst Wildlife Management Area, call 979-233-8729 or go here.
For additional information on the Nannie Stringfellow Wildlife Management Area, call 979-798-8746 or go here.