Wetlands Preservation Program
A primary component of our wetlands protection program consists of monitoring permit applications to dredge and fill wetlands. Great Rivers issues comments on proposals and assists environmental groups and individuals in their legal challenges to protect wetlands.
Wetlands are generally defined as land areas in which saturation with water is the primary feature which determines the type of soil development and the kinds of plant and animal groups living within and on the surface of that soil. There are many types of wetlands including marshes (wetlands frequently or continually inundated with water), swamps (wetlands dominated by woody plants such as trees), bogs (characterized by peat deposits, acidic waters and a thick layer of sphagnum moss covering the bottom and receiving most or all of their water from precipitation) and fens (peat-forming wetlands receiving water from non-precipitation sources).
The uses and benefits of wetlands are many and varied, depending upon the type of wetland and other variables such as climate, land shape and water availability. For example, wetlands house some of the most complex and diverse ecosystems on earth. They host an immense variety of plant life and provide habitat for many animal species for all or part of their life cycles. Commercial and game fish, resident and migratory water fowl, along with well-known mammals such as beavers, otters, black bears, raccoons and deer depend on wetlands for life-sustaining benefits. Natural products from wetlands include blueberries, cranberries, wild rice and medicines derived from the soils and plants found there.
The maintenance of good water quality is another beneficial function of wetlands. Much of the water found in wetlands comes from runoff. Runoff is the water that passes through the wetland from higher ground on its way to large bodies of surface water such as rivers and oceans. Wetlands purify this water by filtering out pollutants from agricultural production, sewage and other sources. This is a kind of natural sewage treatment which is being successfully utilized in lieu of conventional sewage treatment plants in some areas.
Some of the water inundating wetlands is soaked up as if by a sponge. The water may then go into the soil where it replenishes ground water which has been pulled from the earth by wells and used to supply water for drinking and other necessary uses. Other portions of this water may be stored in the wetland during periods of high water flow in the adjoining channel, such as a river. This function serves to prevent or mitigate the destructive effects of flooding. Wetlands thereby become an important tool in flood control and protection.
Wetlands also have a role to play in the moderation of climate change. Global warming is occurring due to the overproduction and emission of so-called "greenhouse gases" such as carbon dioxide which remain in the earth's atmosphere and increase the ambient temperature of the air above the surface of the planet. The extensive plant communities and soils founds in wetlands are able to store carbon rather than releasing it into the atmosphere which reduces the incidence of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.
Despite these much need benefits, wetlands have been disappearing from the lower 48 states to an alarming degree since the 1600s, when the wetland acreage is estimated to have totaled approximately 220 million acres. Human activities such as drainage, excess chemical contamination and the construction of various structures to control flooding and facilitate navigation have combined to reduce that acreage by about 50%. This problem is more severe in Missouri, which has lost 90% of its natural wetlands to such measures as the overbuilding of levees and dams, extensive residential and commercial floodplain development and the failure to maintain adequate water quality standards. These measures must be successfully challenged in order for Missouri's wetlands to be maintained and restored to their natural levels of abundance and for their full benefits to be realized.
Great Rivers' Project to Halt the Rapid Loss of Wetlands within the Mississippi River Corridor
A 2010 Report to Congress reveals that the United States Army Corps of Engineers is not complying with even the most basic and critical wetlands mitigation mandates. For example, the Corps appears to creating illegal barriers to mitigation planning in determining that mitigation should be allowed only “to the extent incrementally justified;” in requiring mitigation only for impacts to “significant resources;” and in carrying out projects with either nonexistent or deficient mitigation. According to the 2010 Report, more than 80% of examined projects fail to meet basic mitigation mandates. Similar concerns exist for projects for which the Corps issues permits. Great Rivers will begin working to identify deficiencies in Corps mitigation efforts and advocate for compliance through formal comment, correspondence, position papers, and meetings with Corps officials, engage state and federal agencies for assistance in obtaining Corps compliance; and identify appropriate projects for appeal and/or litigation to compel compliance. The project’s ultimate goal is to end the rapid loss of wetlands within the Mississippi River corridor.
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