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Detail from the conference poster
Cumberland conference shows importance of wetlands
In the Comox Valley, as in other places around the world, low-lying, water-saturated parcels of land have been the bane of builders, developers, farmers and other property owners. You can’t build on a swamp and you can’t farm in a marsh.
So, for generations, these soaking wet pieces of land have been drained, filled in and covered over. They have been transformed from spongy soil supporting immense biodiversity to dry and hardened sites so somebody, somewhere can make some money.
As a result, Comox Valley wetlands have slowly and steadily disappeared under the march toward urban development. Only three percent of the Valley’s primordial wetlands remain intact today.
On a provincial scale, three times as many wetlands as forests have been lost to urban development. From 1970 to 2015, we have lost 35 percent of the province’s wetlands.
These are disturbing trends because wetlands are such productive ecosystems. They support myriad species of wildlife, fight climate change by storing carbon, recharge our aquifers and act as natural water filters.
And, without them, our rivers — like the Puntledge and Tsolum — would more frequently overflow their banks causing flooding and erosion.
A recent weekend conference hosted by the Village of Cumberland added to the growing awareness of the importance of wetlands. Participants learned what wetlands are, why they are important and how they can be better protected.
Why are wetlands important?
Michele Jones, North Island College Instructor and senior biologist at Mimulus Biological Consultants, asked conference participants to think of all the uses for water in their lives, from bathing to drinking to creating hydro power. And then to consider the limited quantity of water available for those purposes.
While the planet is mostly water, 97 percent of it is salt water. Of the remaining three percent that is freshwater, a little more than two percent is frozen and two-thirds of the last one percent exists in the air as water vapor or in the ground.
Only 0.19 percent of the planet’s water is on the surface in wetlands, streams and rivers and available for all of those human uses.
Jones described wetlands as holes in a sponge. They hold and purify water until it migrates into water courses, such as streams, or infiltrate down into aquifers. She said wetlands slowly decompose organic matter without oxygen, thereby containing carbon dioxide rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. And they enrich streams with nutrients that keep fish habitats healthy.
Jones and other speakers noted that wetlands support more than 600 wildlife species, and that wetland loss has put more than a third of them at risk of extinction.
Dr. Loys Maingon, local naturalist and semi-retired biologist who represents BC on the Canadian Society for Environmental Biology, said the recent United Nations report that a million species now face extinction because of humans’ aggressive pursuit of economic growth must lead to “transformative change.”
Maingon cautioned that words like “sustainability” trick us into thinking current human activity can continue without catastrophic consequences.
“Watersheds don’t care about economic productivity,” Maingon said. “We’re living inside a wetland that is part of a rare ocean planet.”
Elke Wind, a Nanaimo area biologist who has built and restored more than 20 wetlands and an expert on amphibians, said the Comox Valley is a hotspot for observations of several species of Western Toads. But that up to 50 percent of them face extinction unless we “take a broad landscape-level approach to habitat management protection.”
How can wetlands be protected?
Neil Fletcher, the BC Wildlife Federation chair of its wetlands group, discussed some of the tools available to protect wetlands and advocated for a “cultural shift” from technical fixes to embracing natural science.
Fletcher highlighted the role of local governments in saving wetlands, and how smart development could co-exist with wetland preservation.
In response to a concern that local governments often permit development closer to riparian areas than the required 30 meters, if they hire consultants to say there’s no threat to fish, Fletcher said it comes down to political will.
Fletcher sid the BCWF supports buffers of 150 meters to 400 meters for riparian areas, because “ten to thirty meters in insufficient,”
“There’s nothing stopping a local government from enforcing the full riparian setback,” he said. “It’s just political will. That’s where your voice is so important.”
Steve Morgan, a Cumberland resident and a key organizer of the wetlands conference, reinforced the idea of public pressure and engagement.
“Our councils and staff are only as good as the people you put into office,” he said. “Be aware of what’s going on and who you’re electing.”
The conference concluded on a positive talk from Comox Valley Land Trust Executive Director Tim Ennis, who praised the recent trend toward placing monetary values on a municipal natural assets.
He said the money spent on municipal infrastructure is larger than any other available pool of funds, and it could make a huge difference if more of it was directed toward preservation and restoration of wetlands.
Organizer Morgan said that gives him hope for Comox Valley wetlands.
“The Comox Valley has a large number of concerned and active people who go out and do stuff,” Morgan said. “I’d put us up against any community for engaged people.”
Wetlands are submerged or permeated by water — either permanently or temporarily — and are characterized by plants adapted to saturated soil conditions. Wetlands include fresh and salt water marshes, wooded swamps, bogs, seasonally flooded forest, sloughs — any land area that can keep water long enough to let wetland plants and soils develop.
They are the only ecosystem designated for conservation by international convention. They have been recognized as particularly useful areas because:
— they absorb the impact of hydrologic events such as large waves or floods;
— they filter sediments and toxic substances;
— they supply food and essential habitat for many species of fish, shellfish, shorebirds, waterfowl, and fur-bearing mammals;
— they also provide products for food (wild rice, cranberries, fish, wildfowl), energy (peat, wood, charcoal), and building material (lumber)
— they are valuable recreational areas for activities such as hunting, fishing, and birdwatching.
— from Government of Canada
Bogs – peat-covered wetlands where due to poor drainage and the decay of plant material, the surface water is strongly acidic and low in nutrients. Although they are dominated by sphagnum mosses and shrubs, bogs may support trees.
Fens – also peat-covered wetlands, but influenced by a flow of ground-water. They tend to be basic as opposed to acidic and are more productive than a bog. Although fens are dominated by sedges they may also contain shrubs and trees.
Swamps – dominated by shrubs or trees and can be flooded seasonally or for long periods of time. Swamps are both nutrient rich and productive. Swamps can be peatlands or non-peatlands.
Shallow Open Water Ponds – These wetlands include potholes and ponds, as well as water along rivers and lakeshore areas. They are usually relatively small bodies of standing or flowing water commonly representing the stage between lakes and marshes.
Marshes – are periodically or permanently covered by standing or slowly moving water. Marshes are rich in nutrients and have emergent reeds, rushes, cattails and sedges. Water remains within the root zone of these plants for most of the growing season.
— from WetlandsAlberta.ca
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