Though they aren’t often in the public spotlight, wetlands provide an invaluable role in helping to keep our surface water clean and in serving as habitat for animals.
On Feb. 2, World Wetlands Day recognizes the significance of these marshy areas. Celebrated annually since 1997, the day promotes the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. With millions of acres of wetlands in the State of Texas, there are many places for you to enjoy the recreational and educational opportunities offered.
What is a wetland?
Wetlands are areas of land covered in shallow water or very saturated soil that normally remain wet year-round. Also called marshes, bogs, swamps, and bayous, wetlands were once considered nuisance areas by some because they limited development. Scientists now understand that wetlands serve many purposes. In fact, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studies found that wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems in the world, being comparable to rain forests and coral reefs.
Commonly described as “nature’s kidneys,” wetlands cleanse the environment from pollutants and excess nutrients, cleaning water impurities as they move through the system. The EPA found that everything from excess fertilizer application, manure, contaminants from leaking septic systems and municipal sewage can be removed from the water as it moves through a wetland area.
Besides naturally cleaning our water, wetlands reduce soil erosion and in some cases they help provide water to aquifers. And for many animal species, including migrating birds, wetlands serve as biological supermarkets, providing both food and habitat for aquatic and land-based species.
In Texas, another important role of wetlands is flood control. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, these areas fill with water during storm events and help contain runoff that might otherwise flood areas downstream. The EPA estimates that an acre of wetland can store up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater.
Recent research shows that wetlands also benefit the global climate in a positive way. According to the EPA, “Scientists now know that atmospheric maintenance may be an additional wetlands function. Wetlands store carbon within their plant communities and soil instead of releasing it to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Thus wetlands help to moderate global climate conditions.”
Because of their value, wetlands are protected ecosystems regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Clean Water Act.
Wetlands in the Brazos basin
Texas contains millions of acres of wetlands, many are sponsored and maintained for specific purposes and include nature walks and educational centers open to the public.
In the central part of the Brazos River basin, the Lake Waco Wetlands were created in 2001 as part of the City of Waco’s plan to raise the reservoir’s level. These wetlands span 180 acres of marshland and animal habitat. An estimated 11 million gallons of water per day move through this area from the Bosque River, a tributary of the Brazos, into the reservoir according to the City of Waco. A Research and Education Center is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. as well as some Saturdays.
Further south in the Brazos basin on the coast in Brazoria County, the Justin Hurst Wildlife Management Area features nearly 12,000 acres and is part of the Central Coast Wetlands Ecosystem Project. The mission of the project to promote sound conservation of wildlife resources. Visitors to the site can walk on the Live Oak Loop nature trail and view wildlife. This area is about three miles from Bryan Beach State Park, near Freeport.
Also in Brazoria County, the Nannie Stringfellow Wildlife Management Area is a 3,664 acre site is managed by TPWD for wetland and bald eagle mitigation. This site also offers wildlife viewing opportunities. It is located 14 miles southwest of Lake Jackson and seven miles southeast of Sweeny.
For more information on the importance of wetlands, visit https://www.epa.gov/wetlands/wetlands-factsheet-series or http://tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/water/habitats/wetland/ecology/texas_wetlands.phtml.
For information on the Lake Waco Wetlands, call 254-848-9654 or visit http://www.waco-texas.com/cms-wetlands/.
For more on the Justin Hurst Wildlife Management area, call 979-233-8729 or visit https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/wma/find_a_wma/list/?id=41.
For additional information on the Nannie Stringfellow Wildlife Management Area, call 979-798-8746 or visit http://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/hunt/wma/find_a_wma/list/?id=105.