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The Planet

October 1997, Volume 4, number 8

Filtering the Truth Out of Wetlands Myths


Wetlands have a bad rap as fetid swamps, mosquito factories and unreasonable obstacles to progress and development. But the truth about wetlands might surprise you. For example, did you know it can take more time for a business to get a liquor license than it takes the Army Corps of Engineers to approve a permit to fill a marsh? Read on for more myths -- and the truth -- about wetlands.

MYTH:

We have plenty of wetlands. Who needs them anyway?

FACT:

In the lower 48 states, development has destroyed more than half (53 percent) of our original wetlands. The wetlands we lost would have reduced flood damage, filtered pollution and provided homes for fish and wildlife, including some endangered species. (Source: Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

MYTH:

Because wetlands are saturated with water, they must be a liability -- not an asset -- in floods.

FACT:

It's true that some kinds of wetlands are already saturated, such as those atop permafrost in Alaska. But most wetlands have great capacity and act like sponges, soaking up rain and water runoff. They then release water slowly back into streams, lakes and groundwater. The states that have the greatest loss of life and property due to flooding -- California, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio -- have lost more than 80 percent of their wetlands. (Source: Fish and Wildlife Service)

MYTH:

Wetlands provide an excuse for eco-fanatics in the EPA and elsewhere to restrict private property rights by barring construction and other development.

FACT:

Just about anyone can develop a wetland -- and in a flash. In 1996, the Army Corps approved 99.7 percent of all permit applications. The EPA has veto power, but since 1979 it has nixed only 11 out of 150,000 permit applications. The overwhelming majority of permits are routinely approved. Last year, 85 percent were authorized in an average of 11 days. (Source: Army Corps of Engineers, EPA.)

MYTH:

The nation is actually showing a net gain in wetlands habitat.

FACT:

That's what industry and trade organizations would like us to think. But the EPA, Army Corps and Fish and Wildlife Service calculate an annual net loss of 70,000 to 90,000 acres. They base their figures on a 1992 inventory taken by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which counted only rural, non-federal land. Taking into account all wetlands in the coterminous United States, the figure is actually closer to a net loss of 100,000 acres -- every year. (Sources: EPA; Bill O. Wilen, project leader of the Fish and Wildlife Service's National Wetlands Inventory Project.)

MYTH:

A restored wetland is just as good as nature's own.

FACT:

Some restored wetlands serve a good purpose, but most lack the diversity in plant and animal life that develops over time and through wet and dry cycles. Also, a wetland created at Point B to make up for the loss of a wetland at Point A does not always perform the same function. The home of Kentucky schoolteacher Doris Wilson hadn't flooded in the 20 years she lived there -- until this spring, after a neighbor destroyed a nearby wetland. Creating wetland acreage along the Missouri River may help the city of Columbia treat its wastewater, but it won't help Doris Wilson in Kentucky.

http://www.sierraclub.org/planet/199710/myths.asp


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