Ecology upholds protections of Washington’s wetlands amid ‘WOTUS’ disputes
information released by DOE; photos courtesy of Tynan Ramm-Granberg
May is American Wetlands Month, and the Department of Ecology is applauding these “kidneys of the earth” for the role they play in the state’s climate strategy.
A brief history of American Wetlands Month: The EPA, along with its federal, state, Tribal, local, nonprofit and private sector partners, created American Wetlands Month in 1991 to celebrate the vital importance of wetlands to the nation’s ecological, economic, and social health; and to educate Americans about the value of wetlands as a natural resource.
Climate change is causing fluctuations in temperature and changes in the timing and amount of precipitation across all ecosystems, and this can have an especially profound effect on wetlands. Coastal wetlands are being affected by sea level rise and changes in water chemistry. These variations can alter wetland conditions and processes, including the types of habitats they provide and their ability to help manage water quality and flooding.
Managing climate change
Many wetlands play a role in our ability to manage risks from climate change. Wetlands are dynamic systems that experience cycles of wet and dry phases on seasonal, annual, and decadal scales. Because of that natural variability, wetlands may be able to persist and continue to provide ecosystem services despite climate change. These services include:
- Cleaning up polluted water
- Slowing and storing floodwaters and snow melt
- Recharging groundwater
- Supporting habitat for different native and culturally significant plant and animal species
Wetlands are key players in global greenhouse gas mitigation plans. While they can be a source of methane and carbon dioxide, they’re also important sinks for these greenhouse gases, where more carbon is stored in the plants — and especially the soil — than is released into the atmosphere.
Methane is much stronger than carbon dioxide in its ability to trap heat. But its lifetime in the atmosphere is shorter because it basically breaks down over time, according to USGS. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, is more stubborn. It doesn’t break apart like methane, so carbon dioxide can stay in the air forever.
Today, half the methane in the atmosphere comes from people while the remaining half is from natural sources like swamps, bogs, marshes, and wetlands, which are part of the earth’s existing carbon cycle. In these aquatic places, tiny microbes feed on organic material, producing methane as a waste product. How much methane they produce depends on many factors, including hydrology, temperature, vegetation, and wetland size.
The conditions in wetlands that lead to methane production are also good at removing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The “how” is a complex interaction between living things and chemical processes, but ultimately, carbon dioxide is taken from the air via photosynthesis, turned into living plants that die, decompose, and form organic soils. These soils take a very long time to develop so the older a wetland, the more carbon it stores.
Balancing these greenhouse gases is an important part of our climate change mitigation process. We must work to limit the disturbances to wetlands and help support and restore the processes that allow wetlands to store more carbon than they release.
The biggest role we at Ecology play is preventing wetland disturbances from happening before they can become an issue. We collaborate with local stakeholders, contractors, Tribes, and other government agencies to avoid and minimize impacts from development. In Washington, we require applicants to show that they’ve followed a mitigation sequence and worked first to avoid and minimize impacts to wetlands wherever practicable.