According to then 2007 Virginia Outdoors Plan "wetlands, both tidal and non-tidal, are among the most important natural resources found in Virginia's landscape." Wetlands are as productive as tropical rain forests, acre for acre.
Swamps, bogs and marshes, as well as the shallow waters of our rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds are wetlands. So are upland areas that flood or have saturated soils for some period of the year. Wetlands have important natural functions that both humans and animals depend on for survival.
More and more Virginians find themselves living near wetlands. Are you one of them? Do you know what you need to know to help conserve our wetlands?
If you live by the water in eastern Virginia, you probably live near tidal wetlands. Generally speaking, these are the marshes, sand beaches, mudflats and the shallow waters of our rivers and creeks that experience the tidal changes on a daily basis. Humans directly benefit from tidal wetlands because they:
- Filter upland runoff and remove pollutants
- Provide beautiful vistas for our pleasure
- Prevent erosion of our waterfront property
- Provide flood control to protect our homes and businesses
- Provide hatchery and nursery areas for the fish that humans eat
The rest of nature benefits from tidal wetlands, too, because they provide habitat (food, water and cover) for plants, invertebrates, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals and stopover points for migrating birds.
You don't have to live by a body of water to be near wetlands. Non-tidal wetlands may be far from rivers or creeks and make up most of Virginia's wetlands acreage. They may look like forests or fields. They may be wet all year or just some of the year. If your neighborhood floods easily in rainstorms or with unusually high tides, you probably live in a wetland that has been filled to allow the construction of your neighborhood. Non-tidal wetlands have most of the values and benefits of tidal wetlands and a few more besides. For example, they also provide:
- Erosion control
- Nutrient retention
- Groundwater recharge (1 acre of wetlands can hold over a million gallons of water!)
- Hunting and other recreational activities
- Habitat for hundreds of species of animals and birds
- The first line of defense against pollution from surface water runoff
While most of us would not think of the shallow waters and mudflats of creeks and rivers as wetlands, they are part of the wetlands ecology. In tidal systems, this is where the underwater grasses are (submerged aquatic vegetation or “SAV”) that provide habitat for fish and shellfish. The mudflats and shallow bottoms are full of animals that are food for those fish and shellfish and give us healthy wetlands and rivers.
Regrettably, human activity has resulted in the loss of nearly half of the wetlands that were here in Virginia at the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century. Since the 1970's, laws and regulations have slowed but have not stopped wetlands destruction.
Early wetlands losses were severe - some 42% of Virginia’s wetlands were lost between 1780 and 1980. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that Virginia lost more than 63,000 acres of coastal and inland wetlands just between 1956 and 1977. Urban development and dredging projects accounted for most of the tidal wetlands losses during the most recent period. In recent years the rate of loss of vegetated tidal wetlands has slowed to about 25 acres per year according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), but mudflats and non-tidal wetlands continue to be lost to development. Agriculture was the main source of non-tidal wetlands losses from 1956 to 1977, but recent years have seen increasing pressures from the building of roads, housing developments, shopping centers and golf courses on non-tidal wetlands. Shallow water areas are increasingly being altered by dredging for commercial and recreational boat channels and marina and waterfront residential development.
Virginia has committed to a “no net loss” of wetlands under its regulatory program, meaning for every acre of wetlands destroyed an equally significant area of wetland needs to be created to replace it. Unfortunately, Virginia has NEVER met its no net loss policy on tidal wetlands see Virginia's 2010 305(b) report to the federal government. Virginia’s tidal wetlands inventory is over 30 years old and it has no data base to track wetlands restoration.
It is up to individual citizens to fix what is wrong with wetlands in Virginia. Get to know wetlands laws and regulations. Do the right thing on your own land.