February 2, 2023 is World Wetlands Day – a day to celebrate wetlands and all they do for our planet. It’s also a great time to increase our awareness of the threats wetlands face, and take steps toward their protection and restoration.
What are wetlands?
Wetlands are areas of land that are either covered by water or saturated with water. Oftentimes, the water is groundwater seeping up from an aquifer or spring. A wetland’s water can also be coming from a nearby lake or river. In coastal areas, it may be seawater. Although a wetland is entirely covered by water for at least part of the year, the depth of water in each wetland varies – they are transition zones, neither totally dry land nor totally underwater. Wetlands vary in how they look depending on where you are, and many go by other names such as swamps, peatlands, sloughs, marshes, fens and bogs.
Why are wetlands important?
Wetlands play a significant role not only for people but our entire planet. Wetlands are crucial in protecting and improving water quality, and are critically important for biodiversity. They also help with erosion control, soil and nutrient trapping, and supporting people and wildlife alike. Along with being vital to biodiversity, wetlands also contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation, freshwater availability during drought, world and local economies, and more.
When it comes to water, wetlands act like sponges and reservoirs, absorbing excess water during periods of heavy rain – keeping local communities from flooding, and stabilizing the shorelines of lakes and rivers. Wetlands also help recharge groundwater supply, and help supply water for irrigation and domestic uses.
Wetlands are also home to a wide variety of plant and animal life. The organisms living in the wetlands themselves (plants, fungi, etc.) purify the water. In Idaho, wetlands are the homes of many valuable fisheries and endangered species. Many of these wildlife species bring economic benefits to communities. According to Idaho Fish and Game, nearly 50% of bird species in Idaho rely on wetland and riparian habitats. These habitats also support many other game, nongame, and fish species.
Along with benefits to water quality and ecosystem and habitat health, wetlands bring many other economic impacts to Idahoans – they provide recreation opportunities and support the outdoor recreation industry.
While there are wetlands found across the Gem State, fifty-nine are in the panhandle area of North Idaho, and 13 of those are identified by Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game as Class I, deserving highest conservation priority. They are identified through a rigorous scientific process due to their richness, rarity, and uniqueness. North Idaho is also home to an interesting and rare type of wetland – peat bogs.
Peat bogs are archives, containing ancient plant spores, pollen, and fossils which can provide great insights into our distant past. These blogs also act as immense holders of carbon dioxide, and worldwide they are said to store an estimated 15-20% of our planet’s carbon reserves despite only covering 3% of land surface. They are very sensitive to small changes in water chemistry and hydrology, so are susceptible to problems when development or other alterations happen nearby or directly in them. North Idaho is home to several of these bogs, and a couple of the most important are found along the shores of Priest Lake.
Threats to our wetlands
Human development has wreaked havoc on our wetlands. According to the UN Environment Program, nearly 90% of the world’s wetlands have been degraded since the 1700s, and we are losing wetlands three times faster than forests.
Idaho’s wetlands are feeling this impact too, especially as more and more people move to the state, drawn in part by its natural beauty. In North Idaho, since most of the waterfront areas that are more appropriate to build on have already been snapped up, more and more often, developers are turning toward building in the wetlands. And unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to get a permit to do so.
One of North Idaho’s Class I peat bogs, the Coolin Chase Lake wetland complex, is currently at the center of great controversy due to a long-fought development proposal. Despite years of community protests, a developer is moving forward with plans to build a subdivision in this wetland. It’s critical that we protect these amazing peat bogs and the history they hold, the resilience and habitat they offer, and the timeless beauty they provide, which is why ICL is asking the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the developer’s permit to fill in a portion of it to build a 4000 sq ft shop.
Pollution is another problem for wetlands. Chemicals and nutrient pollution from communities, farms, lawns, wastewater and other sources can damage wetlands, and even small changes to hydrology and chemistry can have a detrimental effect on sensitive wetlands.
Protecting and restoring our wetlands
Each World Wetland Day has a theme, and this year’s is “Wetlands Restoration.”
In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency encouraged states and Tribes to develop plans that would guide and prioritize actions for the benefit of wetland conservation and restoration, though Idaho still lacks a formally recognized wetland plan. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game moved forward to adopt a plan for the wetlands they manage, but other agencies need to work collaboratively to develop a comprehensive plan that will be a guide for management, conservation, and restoration of wetlands all across our beautiful state. A Wetland Program Plan is an action plan for the implementation of effective and efficient wetland conservation, restoration, and management, including assessment and monitoring.
As ICL continues to advocate for the protection and restoration of Idaho’s precious wetlands, there are also other ways to speak up for clean water. Idaho Governor Brad Little proposed $277 million in new state funding for water infrastructure and improvements in the 2024 budget. Ensuring access to clean water for communities, farmers, fish, and wildlife is a critical component of state government. We support this proposal, and encourage the Idaho Legislature to approve this new funding to ensure that we keep our lakes, rivers, and wetlands clean! Take action for clean water below, and ask your legislators to support these critical investments!