February 6, 2013

World Wide Wetlands: Making the Case for Landscape Management

Everglades roadside attraction wetlands

World Wetlands Day was celebrated around the world this past Saturday. Started in 1997, the day is meant to both commemorate the February 2nd 1971 signing of the Ramsar Convention – an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilization of wetlands – and to raise awareness of sustainable wetlands use worldwide. Historically, wetlands have often been at odds with agricultural land uses and their very existence threatened by pressure from cropland expansion or chemical runoff. However, one of the goals in taking a landscape approach is managing these conflicts within a landscape. Today’s blog post highlights ongoing research to realize synergies between agricultural land uses and wetlands.

Though wetlands are a mainstay of many ecological systems, their importance in landscape management is often overlooked and the subsequent environmental and economical consequences are often severe. According to Carlos Ocampo at the University of Western Australia, chemical fertilizer runoff- specifically phosphorus and nitrogen- into wetlands cost anywhere from $100 million in the UK and Wales and $240 million in Australia, to $2.2 billion in the U.S. These figures include not only spending on recovery of threatened species and drinking water, but also components such as the value lost in recreation, real estate, and tourism. Additionally, fertilizer runoff can lead to toxic algal blooms that deplete oxygen in the aquatic habitats and disrupt the natural cycle of the ecosystem as a whole.

However, better landscape management may be one answer to dealing with the negative interactions between agricultural land uses and wetland habitat. Though still ongoing, a study led by Associate Professor Megan Ryan of the School of Plant Biology at the University Of Western Australia (UWA), in association with Greening Australia, the Harvey River Restoration Taskforce, and the Alcoa Foundation Advancing Sustainability Research Program, is investigating how to use native plants to reduce fertilizer runoff into waterways in these landscapes. Though the final goal of the project is to protect wetlands of international significance from nutrient pollution and toxic algal blooms, the project is also trying to find plants with the additional benefit of providing income for farmers. So far, research has shown that a vegetation buffer zone is needed most during the spring months, when the water table is close to the surface and thus faces the greatest risk of taking in phosphorus residues.  Researchers are now exploring which plants will work the best in absorbing chemical runoff.

Because wetlands around the globe are facing similar threats, this research actually holds considerable significance beyond Australian borders, including for those concerned about the Everglades in the southern United States. Like the wetlands of Australia, the Everglades are wetlands with shallow water tables, as well as biodiversity hotspots and coveted agricultural land. Those with competing interests in the land – conservationists, policy makers, and farmers – need to find a way to successfully manage the wetland landscape to ensure the sustainability of the area for the long term. One such example of an already successful project was The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve. In December 2011, the 20-year project concluded with water being returned to wetlands, while a portion of the property was leased to a local rancher for grazing cattle.

What the forthcoming results from the UWA study and the Disney Wilderness Preserve have in common is that they both provide clear monetary–as well as ecological–incentives to local farmers for participating in good landscape management practices. Examples of other successful payment for watershed services projects can be found here.

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