Wetlands are valuable to society as a form of natural infrastructure. The forests and marshlands along the Northern Gulf of Mexico are ecological engines pumping out life like no other kind of ecosystem. Wetlands can decrease flooding, clean water, recharge groundwater, protect shorelines and provide homes for wildlife. Wetlands are also our home. The Mississippi River Delta wetlands alone provide $12 – 47 billion per year in benefits.
If wetlands are lost, replacing them can be expensive or impossible. A typical cost for marsh creation is $50,000 an acre. Lost wetlands force cities to pay more for water treatment, drainage and levee maintenance. Lost wetlands force people to pay more for flood insurance.
Flood Water Storage
Wetlands act as natural sponges that trap and slowly release water. This ability to store heavy rainfall means that wetlands can help prevent flooding. One acre of wetland can typically store about one million gallons of water. The degree of flood storage depends on location, wetland type and soil qualities. Wetlands in the Mississippi River floodplain once stored at least 60 days of floodwater. Now this former inland sea can only store 12 days of flooding rain.
The Gulf Coast has a particularly gentle slope. Coastal wetlands are particularly important in the Gulf region because they reduce storm surges. Every 3 miles of healthy coastal wetlands knocks down storm surges about one foot.
Wetlands offer superior, lower-cost flood protection than earthen levees, pumps and stormwater ponds. Wetlands inside of coastal levees can also hold rainwater so that the water is a feature, not a nuisance.
As the cost of flood insurance rises, it is critical to preserve wetlands to defend against floods.
Wetlands improve water by removing sediment, nutrients, pesticides, metals and other pollutants. Wetlands play an important role decreasing the pollution that enters the Gulf and protecting shorelines from erosion. These services are quite valuable to communities and the people who live near wetlands.
Without the Congaree Swamp in South Carolina, the area would need a $5 million wastewater treatment plant. Wetlands surrounding 15 seafood plants in Louisiana save these factories $6,000 to $10,000 per acre (Breaux et al., 1995) .
Habitat & Nursery
Wetlands provide important habitat to countless bird, fish and native plant species. Some of the species of birds that live in Gulf wetlands include the egrets, ibises, anhingas, blue herons and roseate spoonbills. In fact, wetlands are some of the most productive ecosystems in world. Acre for acre, wetlands shelter more aquatic and terrestrial species than any other habitat type. Wetlands are among the most ecologically productive ecosystems on earth (Comer et al., 2005). In the Gulf, wetlands are also home to many endangered species such as the wood stork, snail kite and Bachman’s warbler. More than one-third of the United States' threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands.
Wetlands also serve as a nursery for most important marine species. About 98% of the commercial fish and shellfish harvested in the Gulf of Mexico are dependent on wetlands. And Gulf fisheries generate $2.8 billion per year. Gulf wetlands are home to blue crab, brown shrimp, oysters, striped bass, flounder and menhaden.
There are many cultures around the world that come from wetlands. In the Gulf, the Cajun culture is the most well known. Many Cajun people who live along bayous fish, hunt and trap in the wetlands. Wetland species such as shrimp and crawfish are the foundation of Cajun cuisine.
Indigenous people of the Gulf of Mexico region are connected to wetlands. In Louisiana, land loss in Terrebonne Parish has deeply affected the United Houma Nation and has been a serious hurdle to proper recognition. The Seminole Tribe of Florida is also of the wetlands of South Florida in the Everglades and Big Cypress regions. Native culture depends on healthy natural resources for fishing, hunting and learning.
Wetlands are some big fun. More than half of us in the U.S. hunt, fish, watch birds, float or take pictures for fun. Much of this couldn't happen without wetlands. Duck hunters alone spend around $600 million a year. In 2001, anglers spent about $14.7 billion for fishing trips, $17 billion for equipment and $4 billion in other costs. Wetlands are naturally places of constant change and so they are an ideal place for learning about broader changes in our natural world. Many schoolchildren learn lifelong lessons in wetlands.
The wetlands are our home. Wetlands feed us and shelter us and many other species, from heavy rains and hurricanes. Without wetlands, we wouldn't be the people we are.
Restoring the Gulf Coast: New Markets for Established Firms, Duke Center on Globalization, Governance and Competiveness, 2011.